Film festivals

Framing fame


SFJFF Given the seemingly endless one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of peace negotiations in the Middle East, it seems a fair bet that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 24-Aug. 10) will never stop being among the most politically charged among umpteen annual Bay Area film festivals. But considerably older than the state of Israel — and all attendant controversies — is an aspect of Jewish history that reliably provides a counterbalance to the inevitable heavyweight documentaries and dramas. That would be the ubiquity of Jewish talent in popular entertainment, as performers, presenters, and in every other necessary role.

An old saw that never exactly went away but nonetheless has come back with a vengeance in our alleged post-racial era is that perpetual complaint of the envious, paranoid, and prejudiced that “the Jews run Hollywood.” While it’s true that the movie biz has always has employed a large number of Jewish people, anti-Semites have only themselves to blame for originating this state of affairs. It was the entertainment industry’s lack of respectability in its fledgling years that created an opening for an industrious and imaginative minority who were frequently discouraged from sullying more prestigious art forms with their participation. For decades (arguably even now) many stars, studio moguls, and others tried to downplay or entirely hide their ethnic identity; the silent era, in particular, was a hotbed of biographical revisionism among Hollywood players. Nonetheless, Jewish business, tech, design, and acting talents established deep roots in moviemaking well before Hollywood as idea or physical entity existed, precisely because flickers were initially viewed as a lowbrow novelty unfit for the higher working castes. A very sad microcosm of that semi-hidden Jewish industry presence’s early heights and depths is offered offered by David Cairns and Paul Duane’s multinational documentary Natan, about a hugely important yet lamentably overlooked figure in French cinema. Romanian-born Bernard Natan went from projectionist to cinematographer, producer, film laboratory owner, and more in the medium’s early days. An innovator in the use of sound, color, wide screen, and other techniques, he helped rebuild French film production whole in the aftermath of World War I (in which he volunteered for military service, despite not yet being a legal French citizen).

His extraordinary, tireless enterprise made him an ideal candidate to take over pioneering and powerful, but financially teetering, Pathé Studios in 1929. He virtually rescued it from ruin, while steering it successfully into the talkie era. But despite his efforts, Pathé went bankrupt at the height of the Depression in 1935. Natan was the designated fall guy because he’d used legally questionable means in an attempt to cover losses created largely by people and institutions outside his control. There was a strong whiff of then-increasingly-fashionable anti-Semitism to his pillory: He was accused not only of fraud, but of hiding his Jewish heritage, and of being a pornographer.

The latter charge was accepted with remarkable gullibility by historians until quite recently. But as this doc suggests, painting Natan as a predatory perv making potentially career-ending stag reels makes as little sense realistically as it makes great sense propagandically. (We also see how vague the resemblance is between him and the dude or dudes in “smokers” he’d said to have performed in.) That taint helped usher him to prison in Nazi-occupied France, then to an unrecorded demise at Auschwitz. Shamefully, as late as 1948 his estate was still being sued by an invigorated Pathé. Natan is a belated reclamation of a forgotten cultural giant’s abused reputation.

Whether or not he ever actually had anything to do with filmed erotica, Natan would have been amazed by the career of another cosmopolitan Jew launched just a few years after his life’s end. Wiktor Ericsson’s A Life in Dirty Movies pays bemused biographical homage to what Annie Sprinkle calls “the Ingmar Bergman of porn.” Joe Sarno’s micro-budgeted features targeting “the raincoat crowd” from 1962 onward were exceptionally moody, complex and tortured psychodramas focused on being “as hot as you could without showing anything.” He met his soul mate in aspiring off-off-Broadway actress Peggy, who “could discuss John Ford and Truffaut and Renoir” while juggling all the logistical and fiscal details he was naturally oblivious to as a genu-wine artist.

It’s hard now to imagine the mixed excitement and bewilderment that must have been experienced by 42nd Street grindhouse patrons as they witnessed the likes of 1962’s horrors-of-swingerdom melodrama Sin in the Suburbs, or 1967’s claustrophobic self-portrait-of-a-neurotic-artist All the Sins of Sodom. Strangely not glimpsed in this documentary is the artistic apex of Sarno’s color softcore career, 1972’s Pirandello-esque Young Playthings.

The marketplace soon muscled him into hardcore. He was unhappy enough chronicling graphic XXX action to seriously risk financial ruin — and Peggy, still very much the histrionic type, is seen here swanning about as protector of his legacy. It’s lovely when his unexpectedly big 2010 New York Times obit affirms at last to her that he’s “famous like everybody else,” just as he’d always hoped, and as her scandalized Establishment parents figured he’d never be.

Other features in this year’s SFJFF area focus less on impresarios than on performers. The festival’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to the subject of Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem. This is one of those occasional, simultaneously valuable and dubious documentaries that enlarge upon a well-traveled celebrity solo stage showcase (Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears). The 90-year-old Bikel has done Aleichem’s characters (especially Tevye the Dairyman) so much that the excerpts here feel worn into a groove that congratulates both veteran performer and veteran viewers who recognize bits they’ve already seen. Who can object? He’s like a tabby grooming itself, essential adorability undeniable.

But he never allows himself an unrehearsed moment in what comes off first as an awfully self-congratulatory self-portrait, and secondly as a workmanlike salute to the single greatest shaper of all American Jewish cultural tropes. Shoes is the kind of proud, way-back machine tribute that makes you feel like you’re watching its 12th pledge week replay. Why are the likes of Gilbert Gottfried and Dr. Ruth the principal interviewees here? Because everybody else has moved on, maybe. Aleichem will always be classic, but to what extent do contemporary US Jews recognize themselves in his worldview?

Other entertainers showcased in SFJFF 2014 include The Secret Life of Uri Geller: Psychic Spy?, about the Tel Aviv-born “spoonbender” phenomenon. This UK documentary assumes a campy, skeptical stance re: his paranormal fame, while actually providing evidence that he’s far from a fraud. Go figure. An even more swinging figure of the era is the subject of Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story. The dapper latter epitomized smart, improv-based standup comedy on a national stage once he’d left Chicago’s Second City for TV — surviving the 1969 cancellation his edgily political material purportedly forced upon the hugely popular The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Those looking for an additional peek behind the comedic curtain might also check out documentary feature Comedy Warriors, about disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans taking the standup stage; Little Horribles: An Evening With Amy York Rubin, drawn from the popular online series; and thematic program “Jews in Shorts.”

Then there’s this year’s major excavation from the treasure-trove of forgotten US Yiddish cinema: 1938’s Mamele, in which late pixie queen Molly Picon plays a cheerfully suffering yenta Cinderella awaiting justice for her many sacrifices to a selfish family. She cooks, she cleans, she sings — what more do you want? Of course there’s a happy ending. 2


July 24-Aug. 10, most shows $10-$14

Various Bay Area venues

Moving pictures


FILM As one of the Bay Area’s largest film festivals prepares for its opening (that’d be the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 24-Aug. 10), this weekend heralds several smaller fests with unique approaches to programming, including the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival at the Roxie, and Oakland’s outdoor Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival. Also in Oakland: the second annual Matatu Film Festival, which takes its name from colorfully decorated mini-buses found in Kenya and other East African countries.

The reference suggests a focus on films from that region of the world. But while it is an international festival, it’s more interested in “matatu” as metaphor, presenting films as a way to transport the viewer to new places or points of view. Amid an overall strong program, one of the most timely entries is Mala Mala, a gritty yet joyful exploration of Puerto Rico’s trans community that makes great use of neon-lit streetscapes, a retro-synth score, and the oversized personalities of its subjects. Among them are drag queens, including recent RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant April Carrión, and transgender activists like Ivana Fred, who cuts a striking figure whether she’s raising awareness on TV talk shows, handing out condoms to sex workers, patiently enduring the opinions of a homophobic priest, or modeling her carefully sculpted assets (“I was born in Puerto Rico, but I was made in Ecuador,” she jokes).

The less-glamorous figures are also compelling, including prostitute Sandy, who’s refreshingly candid about all aspects of her life, and Paxx, the sole transman interviewed, who faces what he sees as a “harder transition than trans girls,” since his hormone therapy is far less accessible, and his social support system is far more limited. With trans issues in the spotlight more than ever — see: TV actress Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover and Emmy nomination — Mala Mala directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles do an admirable job showing how diverse the community is, and how complex each individual’s struggles and triumphs can be. Speaking of triumphs, once the dance moves of future drag superstar Queen Bee Ho command the screen, it’s pretty clear who should star in the filmmakers’ next project — or at least season seven of Drag Race.

Elsewhere among Matatu’s docs is Evolution of a Criminal, Darius Clark Moore’s deeply personal film about his detour from standout Houston, Texas, high school student to bank robber, and from prisoner back to school — this time, at NYU’s esteemed film school. Criminal benefits from the sheen of executive producer Spike Lee, but Moore’s story would be gripping even with less polished production. He frames the film as a series of interviews with family members — mom, step dad, grandma, assorted aunts and uncles, etc. — and others (former teachers, the district attorney who prosecuted him) who reflect on the family history and financial circumstances that nudged Moore down the wrong path.

He was a bright kid from a close-knit, hardworking family that couldn’t seem to dig its way out of debt. One night, he was watching America’s Most Wanted and got the bright idea to plan a crime so flawless there’d be no way he’d get caught. He and his fellow teenage accomplices even had the perfect alibi: They’d show up at school, fake illness so they could slip out for the heist, do the deed, and then return to class several thousand dollars richer.

It did work — we watch the crime unfold in re-enactments far more tasteful than anything ever seen on America’s Most Wanted — until it went sideways, as recounted in interviews with Moore’s now-grown, now-regretful friends, and Moore himself, who brims with genuine emotion and yearns for closure, even going so far as to track down, and apologize to, bank workers and patrons who witnessed the robbery. After awhile, this feels like we’re witnessing a 12-step program in progress, but one of the men, a born-again pastor, is an effective mouthpiece for Criminal‘s themes of forgiveness. On the other hand, the DA is far more skeptical, wishing Moore well with his film career, but suggesting she won’t believe he’s really turned a corner until his prison stint is more than 10 years in the past.

Also among Matatu’s doc fare is Evaporating Borders, Iva Radivojevic’s poetic take on the current immigration crisis in Cyprus, an island ruled by both Turkey and Greece (with an “open wound” of a border between). “Its story is multi-layered and complex,” the filmmaker explains in voice-over. “It’s sordid and manipulated.” She has personal insight — she immigrated there herself during the war in her home country, the former Yugoslavia — but also offers of-the-moment perspective via firsthand accounts from recent arrivals. Many arrive fleeing war, as Radivojevic did, though now most come from Iraq, a situation that inflames the island’s considerable anti-Muslim bias. (The filmmaker interviews one Cypriot politician whose anti-immigration rhetoric sounds awfully Tea Party, a reminder that sweeping intolerance isn’t a uniquely American trait after all.)

Other Matatu docs include Virunga, about park rangers fighting to protect the dwindling population of mountain gorillas in Congo’s Virunga National Park; 12 O’Clock Boys, about a scrappy pack of young Baltimore dirt-bike riders (it had a Roxie run earlier this year, though here it’s paired with dreamy sci-fi short Afronauts as an added incentive); and Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace, which follows the famed NYC-based painter as he shifts his focus from male to female subjects for the first time.

Clocking in at under 40 minutes, Kehinde Wiley is paired with a film of similar running time, if not subject matter: Unogumbe, a refashioning of the Benjamin Britten opera Noye’s Fludde. Set in South Africa, sung in Xhosa, and orchestrated with African instruments, it also recasts the Noah character as a woman (the wonderful Paulina Malefane) who gets a heads-up from the guy upstairs that she needs to gather her family and build an ark, pronto. The other two narrative films in the festival are Of Good Report, a contemporary film noir that also hails from South Africa, and the African folklore-inspired Oya: Rise of the Orisha.

But the best companion piece for Unogumbe is Matatu’s opening-night film, The Great Flood, which pairs archival footage shot during and after the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood (curated by filmmaker-multimedia artist Bill Morrison) with a jazzy, bluesy score (by guitarist-composer Bill Frisell). It’s a memorable, haunting collection of images: slow pans across small towns with just rooftops visible; residents paddling whatever few belongings they’ve salvaged to higher ground; a makeshift tent city for the displaced, with an open-air piano providing much-needed entertainment; and starched politicians, including future POTUS Herbert Hoover, surveying the damage while skirting the mud as much as possible. *


Wed/16-Sat/19, $12

Most screenings at Flight Deck

1540 Broadway, Oakl


Tropical impressions


FILM We’re neck-deep in local film festival season right now — which, yeah, is kind of 12 months out of the year around here, but the SF Silent Film and Green Film festivals just ended, DocFest is underway, and Frameline starts June 19 — but there are plenty of reasons to carve out time for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ outstanding New Filipino Cinema mini-fest this weekend.

A big one is opening-night selection How to Disappear Completely; director Raya Martin, a bright light in the Philippines’ burgeoning indie film scene, will appear in person at the screening. This is a good thing, since Disappear is a bit of a head-scratcher, but in a commendable way — part coming-of-age drama, part dreamy puzzle, part old-school exploitation flick (I can’t be the only viewer who sees Martin’s shot of someone pawing through a pot full of intestines and immediately thinks of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Martin told the Philippine Star that Disappear was partially inspired by 1980s American horror filmmakers like Wes Craven, and there are fragments of 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street lurking in this tale of a troubled tomboy (Ness Roque) whose vibrations of high-tension fear conjure a sinister spirit only she can see. This, on top of threats both natural — her island home is dark and lush, with nature’s stormy menace permeating every frame — and domestic: “You think the road home is safe? No one will hear you when you scream,” snarls her mother, who has a bit of Carrie White’s Bible-thumping mama in her.

Mom’s not even the biggest issue, though — that’d be the girl’s drunk, leering father (Noni Buencamino, one of the country’s most acclaimed actors — along with his wife, Shamaine Buencamino, who plays his wife in Disappear), who lurches around with a loaded shotgun and spends all his money betting on cockfights. Aside from its more experimental sequences, which are set to a buzzing electronic soundtrack (and thankfully, no Radiohead), Disappear‘s deliberately loose narrative pivots around strained dinner-table conversations among this dangerously dysfunctional family. Most of the longer passages of dialogue take the form of recitations: Bible stories (Lot and his daughters get a thematically appropriate shout out); folklore (a surprisingly funny tale involving a royal chicken); and a school recital on Filipino history, in which the young heroine plays a gun and her classmates, portraying vengeful villagers, warn the parent-filled audience: “We are going to hunt you down!”

Disappear‘s title card appears a full hour in, or nearly at the end of this 79-minute tale; it’s a blazing beacon in a film otherwise dominated by water imagery. Things only get bleaker, more surreal, and more shockingly violent from there. “If you’re wondering why we’re making such a fuss about new Filipino cinema, this is a great place to start,” explain series co-programmers Joel Shepard and Philbert Ortiz Dy in their program notes.

A far sunnier view of youth in the Philippines emerges in Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo’s Anita’s Last Cha-Cha, also about a tomboy, whose coming-of-age through first love begs the question why this film isn’t called Anita’s First Cha-Cha instead. Anita is 12 and not ready to embrace puberty, despite her widowed mother’s best efforts to dress her up like a princess for the community’s annual fertility festival. This all changes when she catches sight of long-limbed lovely Pilar, the former town beauty who’s returned after a stint studying physical therapy abroad. As Pilar sets up a massage practice in her house (not surprisingly, the local men line up for appointments), Anita begins spending all of her time daydreaming about the older woman.

Of course, her fantasy girlfriend — who has a tortured romantic past with Anita’s age-appropriate male cousin — is just that, and the two become allies as the story takes a melodramatic turn. Writer-director Bernardo will attend the screening in person to discuss her feature debut.

Probably the most high-profile entry in the YBCA series is Sean Ellis’ urban thriller Metro Manila, which won an Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the top prize at that year’s British Independent Film Awards. Ellis is a Brit, but Metro Manila is acted (splendidly) by an all-Filipino cast. After a meager harvest, naïve farmer Oscar (Jake Macapagal) convinces his wife, Mai (Althea Vega), to move with their small children to the big city in search of work. But the grimy metropolis proves a dangerous place, and what’s essentially a predictable tale of country-bumpkin-learns-a-hard-lesson-on-the-mean-streets is elevated by a ruthlessly desperate tone and a killer performance by John Arcilla (as Oscar’s shifty new co-worker). Even better: a couple of clever last-act twists that shake up the story’s seemingly inevitable arc.

These three films are just a surface glimpse of what New Filipino Cinema has in store. Closing night’s screening of Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb, starring veteran superstar Nora Aunor, is already sold out, but fret not: The film, the much-praised latest from the director of 2009’s controversial Kinatay, returns to the YBCA for its own engagement June 26-29. Also screening post-fest is Lav Diaz’s acclaimed Norte, The End of History (June 19-20), a 250-minute epic inspired by Crime and Punishment. *


Wed/11-Sun/15, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

It’s all reel


FILM As far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s already been summer for weeks, with superheroes (Captain America and Spider-Man have had their turns; X-Men: Days of Future Past opens Fri/23) and monsters (Godzilla) looking mighty comfortable atop the box office. But the season is just getting started, screen fiends, and there’s plenty more — maybe too many more, if you’re operating on a limited popcorn budget — ahead. Read on for a highly opinionated, by-no-means-comprehensive guide; as always, dates are subject to change. (And keep reading for a list of local film festivals, too, since the healthiest diet is always a balanced one.)

The first post-Memorial Day weekend unveils Angelina Jolie (dem cheekbones!) as Sleeping Beauty’s worst nightmare in Maleficent, probably the biggest Disney casting coup since Johnny Depp sailed to the Caribbean. First-time helmer Robert Stromberg has a pair of Oscars for his art-direction work on Avatar (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010); if this dark fantasy clicks with audiences, expect a raft of live-action films starring Disney’s ever-growing stable of villains (fingers crossed for Ursula the Sea Witch next).

If fairy tales aren’t your thing, add thriller Cold in July to your calendar (like Maleficent, it’s out May 30). It’s the latest from genre man Jim Mickle (2013’s We Are What We Are), with his highest-profile cast to date. Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, rocking a mullet, plays a small-town Texan whose unremarkable life goes into pulpy overdrive after he kills a burglar, angering the man’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard). But nothing is what it seems in this twisty tale, which also features Don Johnson and a synth score — both stellar enhancements to the film’s late-1980s aesthetic.

Moving into June, sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow  has Tom Cruise saving the world — just another day on the job for the suspiciously ageless star, though he apparently lives the same day over and over here. Look for director Doug Liman (multiple Bourne movies) and co-stars like Emily Blunt and Game of Thrones‘ Noah Taylor to add some depth — though, OK, this’ll probably still be a one-man show. Never change, Tom. Elsewhere June 6, erstwhile Divergent ass-kicker Shailene Woodley aims to prove she’s not just the poor man’s Jennifer Lawrence with young-adult weepie The Fault in Our Stars.

June 13, undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko — played by the likable team of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum — return for more jokes (and winks, because they’re in on the joke too, you guys!) in 22 Jump Street. Far less comedic, and far more brain-melting, is sci-fi drama The Signal, which starts off like a typical road-trip movie, then switches gears a few times before slam-banging into weirdness so out-there it’s almost (almost) a spoiler to note that Laurence “Morpheus” Fishburne plays a key role.

The following week (June 20), Aussie filmmaker David Michôd — whose gritty 2010 Animal Kingdom became an insta-classic of the crime genre, and launched the stateside careers of Jackie Weaver and Joel Edgerton — reunites with Kingdom star Guy Pearce for The Rover, the outback-set tale of a man seeking revenge on a gang of car thieves. In an intriguing casting choice, former vampire Robert Pattinson co-stars as a wounded baddie forced along for the ride.

Next up, June 27 unleashes Transformers: Age of Extinction. Memo to the world: Until we all agree to stop seeing these movies, Michael Bay and company will keep grinding ’em out. At least this one is LaBeouf-less.

Ahead of the long Fourth of July weekend, July 2 unleashes saucy comedy Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy (she also co-wrote the script) and Susan Sarandon as a road-tripping granddaughter and grandmother. Or, you could check out Eric Bana as an NYPD detective who teams up with a priest (Edgar “Carlos the Jackal” Ramírez, recently cast in the Swayze role in the highly unnecessary Point Break remake) in Deliver Us From Evil; despite sharing a title with Amy Berg’s harrowing 2006 doc about pedophiles in the Catholic Church, it’s about demonic possession — but is still probably less frightening than the Berg film, to be honest.

July 11, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has a gimmicky premise — filmed over 12 years, it charts the coming-of-age of a child, and his relationship with his parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — but also glowing reviews from its film festival stints. And, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the banana aisle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives, laying further waste to a San Francisco that already took a beating in the first film, not to mention losing most of its downtown to Godzilla and friends just a week ago. Andy Serkis returns as chimp king Caesar. Also: Roman Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur — based on the David Ives play, and starring Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner — arrives on our shores after picking up a César award for the director in France.

Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest eye candy-laden epic action fantasy, Jupiter Ascending, is about an ordinary human (Mila Kunis) who turns out to be Neo the One, er, royalty from another planet. Based on production stills, this film also features Channing Tatum flying through the air shooting guns and stuff. July 18 also brings The Purge: Anarchy, sequel to last year’s sleeper hit about a near-future America that allows a crime spree free-for-all one night per year. The follow-up lacks Lena Heady — but it does have Michael K. “Omar” Williams, and the characters actually leave the house this time.

Then, on July 25, choose your hero: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sporting a hat made out of a lion’s head (and, apparently, beard made out of yak hair) in Hercules, or those dancin’ kids of Las Vegas-set Step Up All In. (For those keeping score, this is the fifth Step Up film.) Plus, there’s Woody Allen’s 1920s-set Magic in the Moonlight, starring Emma Stone as a psychic and Colin Firth as the skeptic who falls for her. Sounds kinda twee, and Allen’s private life remains controversial, but that cast, which also includes Marcia Gay Harden and Jackie Weaver, is all kinds of dynamite.

August begins with a bang — Marvel’s hotly-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy, which just about broke the Internet when its first trailer rolled out in February, is out on the first — before meandering a bit. Taking a break from her own Marvel duties, Scarlett Johansson (so great in Under the Skin) plays a different kind of superhuman in Luc Besson’s Lucy, while the live action-CG mash-up I’m not sure anyone was really begging for, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, also takes a bow (both Aug. 8).

As the summer winds down, Phillip Noyce (2002’s The Quiet American) strays onto YA turf with an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, with Jeff “The Dude” Bridges playing the title role, and Brenton Thwaits (who also stars in The Signal, above) as his protégé. Also out Aug. 15, The Expendables 3 adds Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, and Wesley Snipes (!!) to its cast o’ aging action hunks. Don’t you worry, Nic Cage — there’s still room for you in the inevitable part four. And don’t miss The Trip to Italy, which re-teams British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for a foodie road trip that will make you guffaw (at the impressions) and drool (over the plates of pasta).

Labor Day looms as Robert Rodriguez brings Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which looks to be as visually stunning as its 2005 predecessor, if not much friendlier to the female perspective; a sports drama inspired by Concord’s own De La Salle High School football team, When the Game Stands Tall; and yet another YA adaptation, If I Stay, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, who is one of the more dynamic teen actors of late, and may make this girlfriend-in-a-coma tale livelier than it sounds. *


San Francisco Green Film Festival (May 29-June 4; Doc-heavy fest of films from 21 countries that explore environmental issues and themes.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 29-June 1; Exquisitely curated and rock-concert-popular showcase of films from cinema’s earliest days, plus live accompaniment and special guests.

SF DocFest (June 5-19; The San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s doc-tastic offshoot consistently offers a strong slate of true-life tales.

New Filipino Cinema (June 11-15; Documentaries, narratives, shorts, and experimental films direct from the Philippines’ burgeoning film scene.

Queer Women of Color Film Festival (June 14-16; Five shorts programs highlight 55 works, with a focus this year on queer culture in Southeast Asian, North African, Middle Eastern, and other Muslim communities.

Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (June 14-Aug 23, Rare and important works by Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Wojciech Has, and others — and since Uncle Marty’s in charge, expect glorious digital restorations across the board.

Frameline (June 19-29; The oldest and largest fest of its kind, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival has been programming the best in queer cinema for 38 years.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 24-Aug 10; Also the oldest and largest fest of its kind, the SFJFF presents year-round programming, though this fest, now in its 34th year, is its centerpiece event.

SFIFF 57: Strange love, Varda, Swedish grrrls, and more!


The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 8; all the details are here. Guardian correspondent and confirmed film fest addict Jesse Hawthorne Ficks checks in with his mid-SFIFF picks and reactions.

Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love (screens tomorrow; ticket info here) showcases exceptional performances by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss and should be a multiple Independent Spirit Award nominee come next statuette season. This unique genre fluster-cluck digs much deeper into marital problems than you would ever expect (audiences seemed quite flipped upside down after the film’s world premiere at Sundance). Similar to films like Darren Araonfsky’s Pi (1998), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and Shane Caruth’s Primer (2004), this will be a film that’ll spark conversations and inspire repeat viewings.

Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke, who directed Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) is back with another coming-of-age stunner: Club Sandwich. The director’s slow-burning method of sticking two people in a room and allowing life’s natural moments to unfold is as precise as the tiny moustache on the protagonist’s upper lip. Rewarding to those who are patient, Club Sandwich is the perfect reminder of that pre-adolescent summer that changed just about everything.  

Agnes Varda’s latest opus, From Here to There, is a 225 minute, five-part miniseries originally made for French television. It casually chronicles her guest appearances at film festivals and cinematheques around the world with numerous asides and melancholic moments that have made Varda one of the most likable icons of cinema. In fact, the episodes work similarly to her earliest films Cleo From 5-7 (1962) and La Pointe Courte (1955), gracefully moving the viewer through moments that seem minor at first, but are in fact profound. (Listening to an 85-year-old Varda get distracted and start talking about the history of chairs brought me to tears.) Like her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnes (2008), this is a must see.

Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson is back and he may have just created one of the most riotous punk rock extravaganzas ever. We Are the Best! (Sweden/Denmark), which takes place in the early 1980s and is based on wife Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel, allows the all-grrrl band to blossom into real-life punk rockers. Evoking passionate punk portrayals like 1980’s Times Square and 1981’s Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (fun fact: Moodysson was unaware of the latter film until I interviewed him!), this drama seems to capture Stockholm circa 1982 in perfect detail. The soundtrack was a major part of discussion during the Q&A, becoming the perfect entry point for those of us desiring an history lesson on the Swedish punk scene. But what I found most exciting about We Are the Best! is its approach to gender roles, as its young female characters attempt to cast aside pressures to look pretty. Either way, Moodysson has created a film just as enjoyable as his debut feature, 1998’s Show Me Love. It has the potential to become a worldwide hit in the same vein as Trainspotting (1996) and Run Lola Run (1999). (Info on screenings today and May 7 here!)

In the 1990s, Tsai Ming-liang’s films were often mentioned alongside works by Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But two decades later, only Tsai has stayed the determined course of creating endurance-driven, contemplative cinema. Presenting his tenth feature (and showcasing yet again his alter ego, actor Lee Kang-sheng), Stray Dogs (Taiwan) is a breathtaking meditation on a homeless Taiwanese family, who are quietly doing what they can to get by. With this film, Tsai has almost abandoned story completely, instead favoring long, drawn-out, surreal, one-shot sequences — next-level abstractness that will either send you running for the hills or leave you unblinkingly glued to the screen.

The film is made to be watched more than once and upon multiple viewings you gain not only patience for Tsai’s masterful aesthetic but an appreciation for how futuristically meditative it is. Someone should program Stray Dogs with his 2012 short Sleepwalk, which follows a monk as he walks, and his follow-up film Journey to the West (2014) which stars Lee and Denis Lavant(!) Whether that would equal absolute transcendence or absolute boredom depends on the viewer, of course. I can’t think of a more emotionally implosive filmmaker working today.

Rewatching Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (South Korea) is in fact as monumentally enjoyable as viewing his previous film, In Another Country (2012). This new film represents another solid entry for the director. The succinct ways in which his male characters are emotionally self-destructive with one another can and should be compared to best of Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen’s films. And this time out, he has created a female protagonist (played by hilariously by Jung Yoo-mi) that adds a complexity to his alcoholic-ridden world. If you were a fan of Hong’s films and stopped watching them, it’s time to come back and enjoy one of the funniest films of the festival circuit.

The surprise documentary hit at this year’s SFIFF most definitely has to be Julie Bertuccelli’s School of Babel (France). Simple catalogue description: “The film details a year in the life of a Parisian class of immigrant youth from countries around the globe — boys and girls ages 11 to 15 — who have come to France to seek asylum, escape hardship or simply better their lives.” What is so overwhelming about this personal journey is how the film not only showcases the student-teacher relationships, but the parent-student dynamics. It culminates in a devastating filmmaker-audience relationship.

Exploring pedagogy as a whole caught me off guard so intensely that I, like many in the theater, felt we were back in school trying to figure out all of life’s problems in between breaks for recess. The film ties in perfectly to the San Francisco Film Society’s Education program, which serves more than 11,000 students and teachers every year, from kindergarten through college, to develop media literacy, cultural awareness, global understanding, as well as a lifelong appreciation of cinema. Do whatever it takes to see this film yourself, and if you’re a teacher, share it with your own students.

New direction


SFIFF First things first: Brand-new San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan’s two favorite movies are 1942 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story and 1974 disaster drama The Towering Inferno. Appropriately, our first meeting takes place in downtown San Francisco, where that fictional world’s tallest building (containing Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and O.J. Simpson, among others) went up in flames.

Cowan is very freshly transplanted from his native Toronto, where he worked for years in various roles at the Toronto International Film Festival; his career highlights also include co-founding Cowboy Pictures and the Global Film Initiative. He’s so new in town that his 12-year-old greyhound, Ruckus, has yet to make the move (“He’s gonna come down in the fall, because it’s been so busy, and I’m traveling a lot this summer”); he’s barely had time to find an apartment (home is now the Inner Sunset) and get his bearings.

But the San Francisco International Film Festival, now in its 57th year, waits for no man — not even this man, SFFS’ fourth executive director after the deaths of Graham Leggat in 2011 and Bingham Ray in 2012, and the brief tenure of Ted Hope, who began a new job at Fandor earlier this year. As the fest ramps up to its opening this week, the energetic Cowan — a huge San Francisco fan — gives the impression of someone who plans on going the distance.

SF Bay Guardian So, you started in early March, and the festival begins April 24. You’re plunging right into it!

Noah Cowan Yeah! But I think it’s better that way, because I’m experiencing the key event of the organization. I was able to help out at the very last minute on a few of the bigger films, but [starting right before SFIFF] allowed me to see the tail end of the programming process, and start thinking about ways we want to move things in the future.

SFBG How does this job differ from what you were doing previously?

NC My role in Toronto was really as an artistic leader, as opposed to an executive leader. Obviously there’s artistic-leadership aspects of my current job, but I have the benefit here of three really capable artistic heads: [director of programming] Rachel Rosen, who runs the festival and our other film screening programs; [Filmmaker360 director] Michelle Turnure-Salleo, who runs the filmmaker services and filmmaking area; and Joanne Parsont, who is a gifted director of education. I’m more strategic guidance and day-to-day administration, really learning how to run and expand and change the business.

In my career, I’ve gone back and forth between these two tendencies. I really feel now that I want to be back in the executive director’s seat. I was co-president of my own business for almost 10 years, and I’ve really missed that — the ability to mentor staff and to shape the overall tone of an institution. San Francisco provides unusually interesting opportunities for making a new kind of institution. It’s just a place that loves invention, and the people, including our board, have a real can-do attitude about change. For me, it’s a dream come true! I just need to get through the festival [laughs] to get a breath.

There are certain holdovers from my role in Toronto, where we built a crazy big building, [the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened in 2010]. There’s nothing else like it in the world of film, and I had the great honor and privilege of being able to oversee the artistic life of that building. Maybe some things that we did there aren’t going to translate here, but some of them will. We engaged in a lot of pilots in education and film-community outreach that taught me some valuable lessons about how those can and can’t work, and what’s changed about education now that we’re in the digital world.

In addition, I’ve learned the pros and cons of having your own theater space. While I’m highly optimistic that we’ll have alliances in the future where we’ll be able to have a year-round screening presence, I’m going to be pretty cautious about how we go about that from a business perspective.

SFBG SFFS already has several special presentations and mini-festivals throughout the year (Taiwan Film Days, French Cinema Now, etc.) When you say “year-round,” do you mean an increase in programming? Weekly screenings?

NC What would exactly happen in that theater is still a question. Maybe it’s just these small festivals that we have. I think there’s something about being associated with a permanent space, even if you don’t own it, that is really important for a film institution — to really be anchored. Film is kind of a retail business in a funny way, and while festivals are the Black Friday of film going, you need to have a sustainable relationship with your audience to be able to grow it, and to have them trust you to follow different pathways.

SFBG Fortunately, like Toronto, San Francisco has a built-in audience of film fanatics.

NC It’s interesting here — it’s more diffuse environment. While there are a lot of film festivals in Toronto, there are a million in San Francisco and in the Bay Area in general, and there’s positives and negatives about that. When I have a second, after our festival, I’m looking forward to reaching out and understanding the needs of other film organizations in the city, and how we might be able to help. So far, this has felt like a city that really welcomes collaboration, so I hope we’ll be able to have some really exciting conversations.

SFBG What are you most excited about at this year’s SFIFF?

NC I really like this festival. There are a number of terrific films. I really like Rachel Rosen’s taste! Very much like the Toronto festival, the San Francisco festival is really focused on audiences: what kind of audiences are going to be interested in what kinds of films, and in general, an eye to audience enjoyment in the selections, even for films that are on the difficult side. There’s a thoughtfulness to the kinds of responses that the programmers would like to elicit, which really fits in with my own philosophies of why film festivals and film organizations are generally on the planet.

In terms of individual films, there are some films that I’ve championed before that are here, like Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart, or James Franco’s Child of God, which I was the programmer of this past year in Toronto. I’m happy to see them again! And then there’s some new work, particularly in the documentary area, that really impresses me — films like Art and Craft and Burt’s Buzz, which are really strong and really accessible.

And then, of the many elements that drew me to San Francisco, probably the biggest one was the incredible work that we’re doing in making films. So I’ll be paying very special attention to the San Francisco Film Society-supported films — we have seven films that we’ve supported, strictly church and state in terms of being selected for the festival, that are going to be here because they’re just the best films of the year, particularly from an American independent perspective. I’m just so delighted that we can have these deep, family associations with films like Hellion, Little Accidents, and Manos Sucias. These are all films of really high caliber that are going to be among the most talked-about films of the year. *


The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit

Get action


CAREERS AND ED Ah, the bright lights of Hollywood — so close, and yet thankfully far enough away to allow Bay Area filmmakers to develop their own identities. The SF scene thrives thanks to an abundance of prolific talent (exhibit A: have you noticed how many film festivals we have?), and continues to grow, with a raft of local programs dedicated to teaching aspiring Spielbergs — or better yet, aspiring Kuchars — the ins and outs of the biz.

San Francisco’s big art schools all have film programs. California College of the Arts offers both a BFA and an MFA in film, with an eye toward keeping students trained not just in cinema’s latest technological advancements, but its ever-changing approaches to distribution and exhibition. One look at the staff roster and it’s not hard to see why CCA’s program is so highly-acclaimed, with two-time Oscar winner Rob Epstein (1985’s The Times of Harvey Milk; 1995’s The Celluloid Closet; 2013’s Lovelace); indie-film pioneer Cheryl Dunye (1996’s The Watermelon Woman; 2001’s The Stranger Inside); and noted experimental artist Jeanne C. Finley, among others.

The Art Institute of California has a Media Arts department that offers a whole slew of programs, including BS degrees in digital filmmaking and video production, digital photography, and media arts and animation, as well as an MFA in Computer Animation. The school, which offers a number of online courses, is affiliated with the for-profit Argosy University system and aims for “career-focused education.”

The San Francisco Art Institute has this to say about its programs: “The distinguished filmmaker Sidney Peterson initiated filmmaking courses at SFAI in 1947, and the work made during that period helped develop “underground” film. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, filmmakers at the school such as Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Stan Brakhage, and Gunvor Nelson brought forth the American avant-garde movement. Our current faculty is internationally renowned in genres including experimental film, documentary, and narrative forms.” The school has embraced new technology and offers extensive digital resources, but it also supports artists who prefer working with celluloid. 16mm and Super 8 filmmaking lives!

The Academy of Art University may be largely known around SF for the number of buildings it owns downtown, but it does have a School of Motion Pictures and Television that offers AA, BFA, and MFA diplomas, augmented by an extensive online program. Its executive director is Diane Baker, eternal pop-culture icon for her role in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (“Take this thing back to Baltimore!”) Other faculty members include acclaimed choreographer Anne Bluethenthal. Students can also take classes from Guardian contributor Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, who programs the popular “Midnites for Maniacs” series at the Castro Theatre and is the school’s film history coordinator.

“I teach 11 different theory classes, including the evolution of horror, Westerns, melodramas, musicals, and ‘otherly’ world cinema, as well as a close-up on Alfred Hitchcock,” Ficks says. “But bar none, the History of Female Filmmakers class seems to create the biggest debates. Some find it sexist to emphasize gender — as artists, why can’t we transcend that concept? Except why have the majority of textbooks forgotten, ignored, or even re-written these women out of history? If the argument is that female filmmakers just aren’t good enough to be ranked alongside their male counterparts, how about watching more than one film by Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, Ida Lupino, or Agnes Varda? And that’s just the first six weeks of class.”

The eventual fate of the City College of San Francisco is still being decided, but for now, its cinema department offers students a mix of hands-on (classes in cinematography, editing, sound, etc.) and theory (film theory, film history, genre studies, etc.) classes. The spring 2014 course catalog included such diverse offerings as “Focus on Film Noir,” “The Documentary Tradition,” “Pre-Production Planning,” and “Digital Media Skills.” Since 2000, the department has showcased outstanding student work in the City Shorts Film Festival, which last year screened both on-campus and at the Roxie Theater.

Tucked into the city’s foggiest corner is San Francisco State University, whose cinema department remains strongly tied to the school’s “core values of equity and social justice,” according to its website, with a special focus on experimental and documentary films. The faculty includes acclaimed filmmakers Larry Clark and Greta Snider, and students can earn a BFA, an MFA, or an MA (fun fact: like I did!)

On the newer end of the spectrum is the eight-year-old Berkeley Digital Film Institute, which offers “weekend intensives” to smaller groups of students. Dean Patrick Kriwanek says the school teaches “LA-style,” or commercial-style, filmmaking. “Our teachers all come from the American Film Institute or have worked on features,” he says. “We’re trying to train our kids to produce the same level of work that you’d see out of UCLA or USC grad schools — excellent work that’s thoughtful.”

The school also takes the practical side of entertainment into account. “I always joke that we try to be 51 percent art school and 49 percent business school, but it’s really true,” he adds. “You really have to be a business person if you want to succeed.”

On this side of the bay, at Mission and Fifth streets to be precise, there’s the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, which aims to “create filmmakers with careers in the entertainment industry.” Faculty members include Frazer Bradshaw, director of the acclaimed indie drama Everything Strange and New (2009) and screenwriter Pamela Gray (1999’s A Walk on the Moon). In addition to months-long programs, the school offers workshops like a crowd funding how-to (an essential area of expertise for any independent artist these days) and a single-day “boot camp-style” intro to digital filmmaking. *


Sundance, fin: more from the Native Forum


Running into Chris Eyre was easily one of the most exciting moments of this year’s festival. Following his 1998 Audience Award-winning debut, Smoke Signals, Eyre premiered Skins at Sundance 2002, just a few months after 9/11 — and it still ranks as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. 

After the film, which offers a harrowing look at a sheriff on the Pine Ridge reservation (which is still to this day the poorest in the nation), Park City audiences were dumbfounded as to how to respond. Producer Jon Kilik, who also helped Spike Lee with his ensemble masterpieces Do the Right Thing (1989) and Clockers (1995) was on hand with director Eyre as they plowed through us progressive pit fallers at Sundance. “We are all responsible.” Eyre’s words are still stuck in my head. 

Other than directing a couple of Friday Night Lights episodes and a few TV movies, Eyre has since had difficulty getting features financed. Make sure to track down his stunning 40-minute A Thousand Roads (2005), created for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It showcases a harrowing score by Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. 

And so the baton seems to have been passed to 34-year-old Oklahoma-based Sterlin Harjo, who read a segment from Hal Ashby’s Bound To Glory (1976), an ode to folk pioneer Woody Guthrie, at the Native Forum anniversary celebration. It perfectly connected his regional stories to a larger context. 

Harjo’s third feature, documentary This May Be the Last Time (US) is a historian’s as well as musicologist’s dream, as Harjo attempts to uncover his grandfather’s disappearance in 1962. As he traces the origins of the Seminole songs that he grew up with, he learns that his tribe’s singing style is tied to traditions that originated in Scotland, Appalachia, and the experiences of enslaved African Americans.

With a film that plays out similarly to Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man (2012), Harjo has constructed a deeply moving personal documentary that transcends the region, and can connect to anyone interested in our country’s complicated colonialism. 

I was able to track Sterlin Harjo down post-fest for a quick interview, and he’s as thoughtful and as passionate as his films suggest. Smoke Signals and Jim Jarmusch’s acid-western Dead Man (1995) both came out at the perfect time to open Harjo’s eyes to filmmaking as a possible career.

“Jarmusch did such a wonderful job with Dead Man, even better than some Native filmmakers. The language, the wardrobe, the regions, it was all so well researched. And the film isn’t about an Indian; it’s about a human who’s complicated, with a dark side and a lighter side,” he said. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1998, Harjo found that he had to leave home to begin reflecting on his own part of the country. 

After completing the Sundance Lab and Native Forum through the Sundance Institute, Harjo made his debut feature, Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), a terrific hipster comedy about a twenty-something who takes a trip to visit his sister off the reservation. “The film is a reactionary Native film to the reactionary Native films that I grew up with. I wanted to contradict the newly formed stereotypes from within the community. No one was going to walk around talking about ‘being an Indian,’ because that didn’t happen in my world. There’s an integrated relationship with a white woman and no one was going to comment on it. Indians were going to drink beer and smoke pot and it wasn’t going to be an issue.”

Though star Tamara Podemski won an Independant Spirit Award nomination as well as a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her “fully realized physical and emotional turn,” the film ran into categorical problems from distributors. “There were supposedly three-hour meetings about how the film was ‘too Indian’ as well as ‘not Native enough’,” he recalled. 

And here lies perhaps the biggest problem with second-generation Native/Indigenous cinema; Who wants to watch these films? Harjo’s follow-up, 2009’s Barking Water, which premiered at Sundance, spotlights a powerhouse performance by Richard Ray Whitman as a man dying of cancer trying to get back home. 

With shades of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), this poignant piece engages the viewer thoroughly through the struggles of generation gaps in our contemporary culture. And all the while, it exposes Oklahoma’s quiet and even “magical” ambiance, according to Harjo. 

“It’s true, all of my films are centered around ‘Home’. That’s ‘Home’ with a capital H because growing up, displacement was a constant subject taught to us. The Trail of Tears seems to still be affecting us to this day. And so ‘Home’ is sacred and part of our mythology yet we are aware of it often feeling temporary. Funny enough, my next film Chief (which is a term used for homeless Natives) is centered around the loss of home when a man is forced to head to Tulsa, where he becomes homeless and finds himself in the middle of the city’s homeless population. You could call it a poetic thriller.” 

Harjo is exactly the type of filmmaker I hope to uncover at film festivals: his work is thought-provoking, passionate, and energized. It’s now up to us to seek out and watch his films so that we don’t read about him 30 years from now and ponder “it’s too bad those second-generation filmmakers didn’t make more cinema.”


Goldies 2014 Dance/Film: San Francisco Dance Film Festival


GOLDIES Greta Schoenberg founded the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2008, but she didn’t realize it at the time. It began as “Motion Pictures,” a gallery show combining dance photography with screenings of Schoenberg’s “screen dance” films — short works she’d made specifically for the camera.

It was a success, so the next year, she asked other artists who were making dance films to contribute. (The dance-film genre also includes staged performances filmed for archival purposes and dance-themed documentaries, in addition to more experimental works.) The 2009 event was also a hit; it attracted the interest of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, which was searching for a way to celebrate Bay Area National Dance Week. Schoenberg’s shorts program was a perfect fit.

“Skye Christensen — who was the director [at Ninth Street], and is now on our board — suggested that we make it into a real festival,” remembers Schoenberg. “It was her idea to call it the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which was a little daunting. But I’m so glad I did, because I think that leap forward was just the risk somebody needed to take, and it happened to be me.”

With help from Christensen and other community arts organizations, Schoenberg assembled a volunteer staff and launched the first official San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2010. The DIY effort worked. “We had people sitting on the floor in the lobby in our rush ticket line. We had already outgrown the [Ninth Street] space.”

An evolution into something even bigger seemed inevitable. Enter Judy Flannery, who was looking for a way to bring Dance Screen — the prestigious dance film and video competition presented by the Vienna-based International Music + Media Centre, or IMZ — to San Francisco.

“When I was first asked by this European organization if I could help them collaborate with a US dance film festival, I said the only two I knew of were in LA and New York,” recalls Flannery — until she learned about Schoenberg’s fledgling enterprise.

Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

“I made this proposition to Greta that it would be great to get the San Francisco festival better-known. I felt she’d done this amazing thing, which was to identify a need. There wasn’t anything in Northern California that allowed filmmakers to show dance films,” Flannery says. “Plus, this is one of the most vibrant dance communities in the country, and we’re also renowned for having a super independent film community. So why hadn’t they gotten together to make dance films? This was a golden opportunity to make this a more established festival.”

She adds with a laugh, “I basically said I’d like to put it on steroids.”

Initially, Schoenberg hesitated — but Flannery won her over.

“I made this Faustian deal with Greta that I would do a big chunk of the work, alongside Greta and a lot of volunteers, to help establish the fourth festival, in 2013, as a collaboration between the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and the European Dance Screen,” she says. “I was also able to get some other artistic organizations involved, like the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Film Society.”

The SFDFF’s newly heightened profile allowed for an expanded program beyond screenings, with panel presentations (on topics like digital distribution and music-rights issues) and the “Co-Laboratory” program, which paired local choreographers with local filmmakers and gave them a compressed window of time (one week!) to create a short dance film together.

“We wanted to encourage local dancers and filmmakers — who are very busy doing their own things — to go, ‘Look what happens if we work together!’,” Flannery says. “It was a wonderful way to engage the very communities we want to celebrate. This year, we want to build on what we were able to pull off last year.”

And the SFDFF’s upward trajectory shows no sign of leveling off. Plans for the future include, of course, the 2014 festival (calling all filmmakers: submissions are open through May 1), which takes place in November and will include a tribute to veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Eventually, the SFDFF hopes to become a year-round organization. Expanding its audience is a key goal.

“This genre is not new — it’s been around since the early days of cinema,” Schoenberg says, citing the works of Muybridge and Maya Deren as examples. “What is new is the technology that’s available for the average dancer. Now, you can make a film on your iPhone. That’s exciting! And through these works, you can expose somebody to dance in a way that they’re comfortable with. They might not inclined to go to a live performance of an unknown contemporary dance company, but if they’ve seen a shorts program of contemporary dance works, maybe they would. As a dancer, I don’t feel like dance films can ever replace live performance. That would never be the goal. But using these films as ambassadors, and getting people to understand dance a little bit more — I think they’re an amazing tool for outreach.”

England made him


FILM Swinging London had a brief, faddish life in movies in terms of actual representation, far more fleeting than its influences on music or fashion. But the general cultural shift it signaled did bring some lasting changes to English cinema, notably a new kind of leading man — the period’s celebration of youth and dandyism made it OK for men onscreen to be coltish, vulnerable, androgynously attractive. The prime specimen was Michael York, unabashedly pretty and a bit of a toff — certainly no working-class rough like Angry Young Men Albert Finney or Michael Caine.

The Oxford grad joined Olivier’s National Theatre in 1965, getting cast in a production directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who then put him in his filmed hits The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). But it wasn’t until 1972 that he was seen by everyone as the Christopher Isherwood figure in Bob Fosse’s exceptionally sharp Cabaret, the Broadway musical drawn from that author’s fictionalized memoir. Never mind that he (nor Liza Minnelli, for that matter) would never really be a box-office star; as a name, he was made.

York had a good run through the 1970s. He was D’Artagnan in Richard Lester’s Musketeer films (1973 and ’74), the titular tunic-wearer in 1976’s Logan’s Run, among the stars committing Murder on the Orient Express (1974), John the Baptist in Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, and straight man in both The Last Remake of Beau Geste and the hardly-last Island of Dr. Moreau remake (both 1977).

But the favorite film he’s chosen for his in-person tribute this Saturday at SF’s Mostly British Film Festival is comparatively little-remembered. You could view 1973’s England Made Me as riding the coattails of Cabaret — after all, here he is again as another affable, genteel but cash-poor temporary English émigré to Germany just as the Weimer era is getting tramped by the stormtrooper boots of National Socialism. But the Graham Greene source material (first published in 1935) is strong stuff, intelligently handled by director and co-adaptor Peter Duffell.

York’s Tony Farrant is a pleasant, callow young failure, hopeless at any endeavor that might pay the bills. Having lost yet another job (this time in the Far East), he blows into Berlin to visit Kate (Hildegard Neil), the sister whose queasily inappropriate affections he’s oblivious enough not to have recognized as such, yet. She’s ensconced herself as mistress and second-in-command to Krogh (Peter Finch), international financial titan skating on thin ice amid Hitler’s increasingly nationalistic economic policies.

Once again in need of employment, Tony looks to get fixed up by big sis — in fact, his pleasing, sociable English manners could be quite useful to a man as brilliant yet uneasy with people as Krogh. Then again, his gabby naiveté could also jinx matters much bigger than he grasps. It’s inevitable in Greene’s universe that cruel fate should choose the least guilty party in a web of corrupt intrigue to fall upon, like an anvil from a rooftop.

The role could hardly fall more squarely in York’s comfort zone. Yet it would be a mistake to take the seeming ease with which he delivers Tony’s very easy personality as anything less than very deft work. No wonder it’s a personal favorite — you can sense his engagement in a hundred fresh, surprising, perfectly in-character touches.

After his Seventies peak, York remained busy. But his type began working against him — an ingenue’s worst enemy (even a male one’s) is the onslaught of age — and he didn’t transition as well as some peers to character roles. He slid down the ranks via such odd stints as a short run on Dynasty knockoff Knots Landing and playing Dario Argento’s Phantom of Death in 1988 (the director saving the word “opera” for a later movie). Eventually he was seldom used save to personify old-school Englishness as a joke or fossil, whether visibly (as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series) or as a voice actor (as a Transformer, in Star Wars and Batman cartoons, video games, audio books, etc.) In recent years he’s also written several well-received memoirs and lectured extensively on acting Shakespeare.

England Made Me is not the only older film in Mostly British this year, though it’s the only one that comes with a living star in person. No one will be resuscitating the recently decreased Peter O’Toole, memorialized with a screening of 1982’s My Favorite Year; nor will there be any thawing for Richard Burton as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, 1965’s faithfully bleak adaptation of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel. The latter film plays a “British noir night” with Stephen Frears’ bizarre and rather brilliant 1984 The Hit.

Otherwise the focus, as usual, is on new (or new-ish) films from the UK and beyond. Some have already played theatrically here, like Neil Jordan’s middling vampire opus Byzantium (2012), Beatles-related documentary Good Ol’ Freda (2013), and Michael Winterbottom’s biopic about the UK’s sultan of 1960s and ’70s smut, The Look of Love (2013).

Coming soon to theaters — sooner still if you catch them as part of the festival — are director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi’s excellent seriocomedy Le Week-End, as well as Mumbai-set The Lunchbox. Speaking of the colonies, outback thriller Mystery Road and kidnapping drama Last Dance represent Australia.

If you appreciated Will Forte’s turn in Nebraska (2013), it’s worth seeing Run & Jump, in which he’s equally effective as an American doctor whose emotions unfreeze while doing research in Ireland — also the setting for Stay, a drearier piece distinguished by Aidan Quinn’s fine take on the stereotypical Irish rascally charmer. What Richard Did is a quietly intriguing melodrama about middle-class teenagers shaken by the aftermath of a fight outside a house party. Farther down the socioeconomic scale, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant offers a portrait of children involved in petty crimes that’s as potent as the best of Ken Loach or the Dardennes. *


Feb. 13-20

Vogue Theatre

3290 Sacramento, SF


I Was a Teenage Sundancer


I grew up at the Sundance Film Festival — beginning in 1990, when my father took my 14-year-old self to an archival screening of Melvin Van Peebles’ X-rated Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and my best friend Grayson Jenson’s parents introduced us to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1963). 

These two films have polar-opposite subject matter, but they do share some odd similarities; they both make aggressive statements about counterculture, and both are cut together with hyperkinetic, French New Wave-esque editing. But back then, all I knew was that my life was maniacally changed … forever. 

This transformative experience was enhanced by accidentally sitting next to only movie critic I had ever heard of: Mr. Roger Ebert. As it happens, a documentary about the late writer’s career, Steve James’ Life Itself, was one of the 2014 festival’s biggest hits. Friendly and engaging, Ebert explained to me (at 14) that he personally enjoyed watching the Beatles’ “best film” on 16mm as opposed to 35mm. The conversation we shared (“What are your favorite films?” Me: “Hellraiser II, Aliens, Evil Dead 2, and Phantasm II“) left a long and deep impression on me.

That was my first memorable Sundance moment. But this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals — celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries, respectively — were (on the occasion of my own 24th Sundance anniversary) maybe the best I’ve ever experienced, overall.

Yeah, I say that every year, but there was something special about 2014. I attended 50 features, a handful of remarkable short films, two intimate concerts (Belle and Sebastian, DJ Steve Aoki), a poetry reading at Sundance with the finest Native and Indigenous filmmakers in the world right now, and a Slamdance awards ceremony for Christopher Nolan — who brought along his entire family!

Based on the above, I feel confident in predicting that this year is gonna be a remarkable one for cinema. Check back tomorrow for the first in my Sundance (and Slamdance) series of spoiler-free reviews, with an emphasis on under-the-radar films that you do not wanna miss. 

Up next: Indonesian action sequel The Raid 2: Berandal and Amy Poehler-Paul Rudd rom-com spoof They Came Together. It’s on!

Get high


FILM San Francisco has a lot of film festivals (understatement of the millennium), but none until now can claim to show "films from the roof of the world." The first annual Himalayan Film Festival kicks off this week with screenings in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. Opening night features the West Coast premiere of Leon Stuparich’s Road to Peace, a doc that follows the Dalai Lama on his 2008 tour of the UK.

The timing of the visit coincides with a period of unrest in Lhasa, so the trip takes on an unexpectedly political tone, with reporters pressing His Holiness to speak about "the Tibetan problem." Which he does (advocating for "meaningful autonomy" instead of complete independence from China, and emphasizing the need for "a realistic approach" to the conflict), though he nudges his message toward broader themes: universal responsibility, religious harmony, cultural preservation, the environment, and so forth.

In his wake, he leaves a trail of teary-eyed, thoroughly chuffed Brits, including Absolutely Fabulous‘ Joanna Lumley, and proves once again to be one of the world’s most laid-back leaders, with an easy chuckle that puts awed audiences at ease. No wonder he’s such a frequent, favorite subject for documentarians like Stuparich; to that end, if you’ve seen a previous film on the Dalai Lama, this genial travelogue is likely to feel somewhat familiar.

More unusual subject matter is explored in Himalayan Gold Rush, which manages to overcome its stiff, National Geographic-ish narration with a gripping narrative and quite a bit of spectacular scenery. Director Eric Valli travels to rural Nepal to investigate the lucrative yartsa gunbu, or "Himalayan Viagra" trade. Derived from a fungus-and-caterpillar situation that only occurs 5,000 meters above sea level, it’s "worth more than gold" to herbal-remedy shops that cater to rich Chinese clients.

Medicinal claims aside, much of its value is due to the fact that it’s incredibly rare, as well as back-breakingly difficult to harvest. Himalayan Gold Rush zeroes in on a few different foot soldiers, including a father with two young sons who worries about the mountains’ rapidly dwindling yartsa supply — even as he gambles away the family’s meager earnings in a dice game — and a man who rides from camp to camp, buying the crop to sell to his boss, an exporter, in Kathmandu. This, too, is perilous work, with armed guards necessary to protect large parcels of the precious stuff, which to the untrained eye resembles dried-up tequila worms.

An entirely different Nepalese story unfolds in The Sari Soldiers, a 2008 film that focuses on the country’s turbulent political unrest in 2005-2006. It begins with a reminder about the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre, in which the country’s crown prince shot and killed nine of his family members, then himself — or so goes the official version of the controversial tragedy (where’s the documentary on that, by the way?) It then explains how the slain king’s unpopular brother ascended to the throne, and a few years later, amid a Maoist insurgency, claimed "absolute power" for himself.

With this chaos forming a potent backdrop, The Sari Soldiers highlights six women whose different viewpoints make for a remarkably even-handed doc. Not only does filmmaker Julie Bridgham make great use of handheld footage taken amid tense, anti-monarchy student demonstrations, she interviews both a Maoist soldier and a Royal Nepalese Army soldier. Most powerfully, she traces the struggles of a human-rights lawyer who advocates for the country’s alarming number of people who’ve been "disappeared" by the government, including the 15-year-old daughter of another of Bridgham’s subjects.

Other intriguing entries in the small but promising Himalayan Film Festival line-up include another doc about the Nepalese civil war, Beneath Everest: Nepal Reform; a doc about Tibetan athletes’ attempts to earn representation at the Beijing Olympics, Leaving Fear Behind — whose director was jailed because of the film; and, among a handful of narrative works, Old Dog, about a family at odds over the treatment of their much-cherished dog (a Tibetan Mastiff, natch).


Wed/15-Sun/19, $10

Various venues

Go South


FILM San Francisco is a town of many film festivals: SF IndieFest wraps up Thu/21, and the Center for Asian American Media Festival (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) kicks off March 14. Lest you suffer fest withdrawal, the gap between is filled nearly end-to-end by Cinequest — San Jose’s 23rd annual salute to cinema that has a Silicon Valley-appropriate focus on technological innovations.

One example of that focus: Sony-sponsored 4K digital screenings of Taxi Driver (1976), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). While there’s no replacing the experience of seeing these classics projected on film, these restorations promise to render even Travis Bickle’s grimy apartment in eye-poppingly sharp relief. (“You talkin’ to me, or you checkin’ out my dirty dishes?”)

If the idea of burning highway miles to see movies you’ve already snagged on Blu-ray doesn’t appeal, Cinequest has corralled a genuine Hollywood icon for its Maverick Spirit Award: Harrison Ford. He’ll attend in person to discuss his career and, no doubt, field many a question about his rumored involvement in the upcoming Star Wars sequel-reboot-spinoff-thing — to be directed by J.J. Abrams, a past Maverick recipient himself. Other 2013 Maverick winners include Salman Rushdie, who’ll receive his award after the closing-night screening of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, based on Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel; and Chuck Palahniuk, who’ll be honored after a screening of a short film he scripted, Romance (one theme: Britney Spears), among others.

Cinequest’s largest component is, of course, its actual film programming, with a wide array of shorts, narratives, and docs. The fest kicks off with Sally Potter’s downbeat coming-of-age tale Ginger & Rosa. It’s the 1960s, nuclear war is a real possibility, and nuclear-family war is an absolute certainty, at least in the London house occupied by Ginger (Elle Fanning), her emotionally wounded mother (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), and her narcissistic-intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola). Ginger’s teenage rebellion quickly morphs into angst when her BFF Rosa (Beautiful Creatures‘ Alice Englert) wedges her sexed-up neediness between Ginger’s parents. Hendricks (playing the accordion — just like Joan!) and Annette Bening (as an American activist who encourages Ginger’s political-protest leanings) are strong, but Fanning’s powerhouse performance is the main focus — though even she’s occasionally overshadowed by her artificially scarlet hair.

Horror fans: the number one reason to haul your carcass to Cinequest is Year of the Living Dead, a ghoulishly delightful look back at the making of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Rob Kuhns’ doc skews more cultural-legacy than fanboy, deploying a variety of talking heads (critics Mark Harris and Elvis Mitchell, Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd, filmmaker Larry Fessenden) to explain why Night — offering just as much social commentary as any film from the Vietnam and Civil Rights era, except with way more squishy entrails — endures on so many levels. The best part, though, is the extended interview with George A. Romero, grinning and chuckling his way through anecdotes and on-set memories. On directing his amateur actors: “Just do your best zombie, man!”

Also highly enjoyable is Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, an affectionate portrait of the longtime Paris Review editor and “professional collector of experiences” who wrote books, articles, and made TV specials about his delight in being “the universal amateur.” His endeavors included playing football with the Detroit Lions, hockey with the Boston Bruins, and the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, among even more unusual pursuits. Some called him a dilettante (to his face while he was alive, and in this doc, too), but most of the friends, colleagues, and family members here recall Plimpton — born to an upper-crust New York family, he was friends with the Kennedys and worshipped Hemingway — as an irrepressible adventurer who more or less tailored a journalism career around his talents and personality.

Less upbeat but just as fascinating is Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross’ The Believers, which starts in 1989 as University of Utah scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons hold a press conference to announce they’ve discovered cold fusion — a way to make clean, cheap, plentiful power by fusing atoms instead of splitting them. But the initial excitement over their announcement soon gave way to skepticism and widespread dissent; eventually, their careers were in ruins, and by 1996, cold fusion was reduced to being a plot device for Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction.

With new input from nearly everyone who was involved in the controversy (save the intensely private Pons, who’s seen in archival footage), The Believers captures cold fusion’s slow and spectacular fall from favor, while giving equal screen time to visionaries who believe it may still be possible. More importantly, its broader message explores what happens — or more pointedly, what doesn’t happen — when a radical idea appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to challenge an established way of thinking.


Feb. 26-March 10, $5-$50

Various venues, San Jose


Sundance 2013: a local tragedy, an ongoing romance, and top picks


Ryan Coogler’s Bay Area story Fruitvale picked up the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; it is, of course, based on the life and death of Oakland’s Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by a BART cop on New Year’s Day 2009. I emerged from this important, wonderfully-made debut like everyone around me in the sold-out theater — in devastated tears.

Lead actor Michael B. Jordan is absolutely gripping as Oscar — no surprise for anyone who saw him as Wallace on the first season of HBO’s The Wire, or as one of Josh Trank’s accidental superheroes in 2012’s surprisingly gritty Chronicle. Coogler is a skilled director; the way he slowly builds toward his story’s inevitable conclusion is worthy of praise.

But as I thought about it in the days after the screening, I realized I had some reservations about Fruitvale‘s script, despite all of its good intentions. Its characters, including the BART policemen and Oscar, tend to be one-dimensional, which drains the story of nuance. Instead of guiding the viewer though the situation, it ends up telling us what its point of view is.

Rounding out this year’s Sundance picks is the latest film in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before series, Before Midnight. I heard multiple critics complaining that they were annoyed with “yet another entry;” frankly, that made me wonder if they themselves are tired of their own lives. The random-yet-precise-ness that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have allowed these two characters to explore over 18 years has to be experienced to be understood.

Before Sunrise
(1995) is perhaps the series’ most relatable, since it embodies the excitement of traveling around in one’s carefree early 20s. Hawke and Delpy embodied their characters’ journey so well that I have actually plotted my own travels over the years with that film in mind.

Then came Before Sunset (2004), with the characters in their mid-30s, and their lives haven’t necessarily gone the way they’d hoped. If you revisit Sunset you may find how spot-on Linklater and company are in capturing the progressive pitfalls of the know-it-all generation.

Heartbreaking and somehow still romantic, neither film can prepare you for what Before Midnight has to offer. Now in their 40s, both Hawke and Delpy have said in interviews that they developed the characters of Jesse and Céline alongside their own hopes and dreams, and use these alter-egos to help understand their own limitations in life.

As for Linklater — who emerged on the Sundance scene with 1991’s Slacker, losing the Grand Jury prize to Todd Haynes’ Poison — even if you don’t have a mini-breakdown as each Before film ends (every time … sniff), there’s no denying his spontaneous yet meticulous Before series has produced magic over 18 years, and is on its way to being the narrative equivalent of Michael Apted’s monumental Up series.


1. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (UK/New Zealand)
2. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (USA/Greece)
3. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA)
4. Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic (Chile)
5. Matt Johnson’s The Dirties (Canada)
6. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Waaseypur (India)
7. Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy (Peru/USA)
8. Nicole Teeny’s Bible Quiz (USA)
9. Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (USA)
10. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (USA)
11. Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie & the Boxer (USA)
12. Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila (UK/Philippines)
13. Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (UK)

Sundance 2013: love and confusion


I only got to experience half of this year’s US Dramatic Competition films (unfortunately, missing David Lowery’s buzzed-about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which shared the Best Cinematography Award with Andrew Dosunmu’s breathtaking Mother of George).

Still, among the films I saw, I was pleasantly surprised by James Ponsoldt’s brutally poignant coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now. With a straight-ahead script that avoids clichés, the film benefits greatly from a pair of standout performances by its young stars. Miles Teller, from John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010) and Craig Brewer’s underrated remake of Footloose (2011), perfectly embodies a high-school asshole, while Shailene Woodley (so good in Alexander Payne’s 2011 The Descendants) is spot-on as the class loner.

The Spectacular Now offers a reminder that high school sucks just as much as it did when you were a teenager. Along with last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it’s John Hughes, 21st-century style.

Elsewhere, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (following his much-praised, much-debated 2004 Primer) put me into an Inception-like trance, to the point of me probably needing to see it again before I can speak logically about it. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight won the Best Directing award and featured noteworthy performances by Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple, but its bafflingly regressive conclusion has left me wondering if a studio forced the director to change it at the last minute. (That said, I enjoyed it immensely.)

Lynn Shelton’s latest entry Touchy Feely was only superficially engaging; it seemed to lack the bold direction and poignancy of Humpday (2009) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011). Jordon Vogt-Roberts’ Toy’s House sent the audience into hysterical laughter (supposedly at every screening) due to a memorable performance by Disney Channel star Moises Arias as the creepy third wheel in what’s more or less a suburban Lord of the Flies. (Fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec won’t want to miss Nick Offerman in this, either.) Could Toy’s House be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine?

Sundance and Slamdance 2013: powerful docs


Scroll on up Pixel Vision for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ previous Utah festival reports.

In recent years, Sundance has become well-known for its strong documentary offerings — to the point of overshadowing its dramatic films. And with good reason, when docs like Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller are among the selections.

The film follows the four remaining doctors in the United States who continue to perform third-trimester abortions; it’s a decidedly direct character study that uncovers the complex and difficult choices these physicians go through on a daily basis. (Not to mention the element of danger they face, as the title’s reference to the murder of Dr. George Tiller suggests. With that in mind, there was a protective police presence at all of After Tiller’s Sundance screenings.) The doc’s impact didn’t end when the lights came up; for days after the screening, I found myself drawn into fascinating conversations with folks who were eager to discuss their feelings about the film and the issues it explores.

Roger Ross Williams’s God Loves Uganda has the same type of power to ignite discussion. It follows the misguided and even diabolical misrepresentation of homosexuality that’s been perpetuated by American missionaries in Uganda — an Evangelical Christian crusade that has encouraged the African country to impose the death penalty on gay people. An indictment of how religion can lead to hate crimes, God Loves Uganda uncomfortably uncovers a modern-day witch hunt that’s brought tragic results.

On a happier note, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer shares the 40-year love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married artists who have been through everything together and yet still keep their passion alive. The look and feel of this film is just as artistic as the subjects themselves (which is saying a lot — I was lucky enough to see their work first hand at the J GO Gallery in Park City). Don’t miss this feel-good film — winner of the US Documentary Directing Award — when it’s released by Radius/TWC later this year. The closing credits alone are one of the most exhilarating moments of 2013!

Down the road at Slamdance, Nicole Teeny’s sensitive Bible Quiz, which won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Documentary, stuck with me like no other film this year. It’s a quiet, moving look at a Tacoma, Wash. team of teens deeply involved in the titular competition, which involves memorizing and reciting verses and even entire books of the Bible.

But while the film achieves the same kind of drama that earned Jeffrey Blitz an Oscar nod for his spelling-bee tale Spellbound (2002), director Teeny has much more up her sleeve here. The real subject of the film is 17-year-old Mikayla, whose heartbreaking honesty is a reminder that every new generation has to learn things the hard way to survive high school and beyond. Programming Bible Quiz was a major coup for Slamdance — it was the best documentary at the fest and topped any at Sundance, too. It has the potential to be a film that people will remember for years to come.

Sundance 2013: championing Campion


For more Sundance 2013 reports, go here, here, here, and here.

Easily the greatest screening event at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Jane Campion’s multi-part miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two, and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.

Though it was made for TV, this 353-minute, Twin Peaks (1990) meets Silence of the Lambs (1991) extravaganza was shown on the big screen, which gave it even more impact. Not that it needed much help: when intermission came at the end of the third episode, audience members filed out for lunch with similar (stunned, shocked, obliterated) expressions on their faces.

When the series concluded, it was clear that Top of the Lake was one of those Sundance experiences that bonds people together for the rest of their lives. (It happens. Trust.) The cast of this haunting psychological thriller is headed up by a stunning Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men); also of note are supporting turns by Holly Hunter (re-teaming with Campion 20 years after her Oscar-winning turn in 1993’s The Piano), Peter Mullan, and Michelle Ang.

Luscious New Zealand landscapes provide the backdrop for a tangled web of dark and troubling things — hence the thematic comparisons to David Lynch (there’s a bit of 1986’s Blue Velvet in there too). Campion uses her usual finesse to explore Top of the Lake‘s uncompromising subjects — though unlike her two most recent films, the underrated Bright Star (2009) and In the Cut (2003), she has the luxury of six hours to flesh them all out. (You can catch Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in March, but don’t read too much about it, since most reviews seem to unnecessarily spoil some major key points.)

The epic screening concluded with a nearly 75-minute Q&A complete with the full cast and crew, and we’d all probably still be in that theater if they hadn’t kicked us out. Hopefully people will stop categorizing Campion as merely a great female filmmaker and start recognizing her as one of the greatest living directors, because Top of the Lake proves just that.

Sundance 2013: what’s NEXT?


Earlier fest reports here, here, and here.

At Sundance 2013, no other category could compete with the NEXT programming. NEXT was initiated in 2010; its aim is to highlight “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a ‘greater’ next wave in American cinema.”

Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker showcases Ned Oldham (brother of indie fave Will Oldham) as a father-husband-musician whose teenage daughter starts to drift away as his marriage dissolves. Wonderfully awkward and trying moments arise from every suburban-hipster angle, making Darker not only a disturbing blueprint of divorce among the indie-rock generation, but — with three fully performed songs — a reminder of why so much music from this time period remains utterly relatable. (Clearly, not everyone agrees; I overheard a group of SLC locals calling Darker their “least favorite movie of all time.”)

Yen Tan’s surprisingly powerful Pit Stop and “Best of NEXT” winner Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner both showcase quiet and emotionally implosive relationships; both also have such well-earned conclusions that I was confused as to why they weren’t in the Dramatic Competition category instead. Tan’s interwoven structure reminded me of Megan Griffiths’ overlooked gem The Off Hours (2010), while Hartigan’s slow burner was excitingly reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1998). Remember their names, because these filmmakers are about to have major breakthroughs.

But the two NEXT entries that have already achieved “major” status in my mind already are Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA) and Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice (discussed in Thu/7’s post). Oddly enough both films inspired extremely aggressive Q&As, in which an audience member attacked the film and filmmaker with the very first question.

Mumblecore master Bujalski, who studied under minimalist Chantal Akerman (1975’s Jeanne Dielman), walked up onto the stage after his mind-numbing, purposefully janky, addictively hilarious, and ultimately transcendental psychedelic mind-fuck. First question right out of the gate: “Would you explain three or four concepts from your film, so I know what I just watched?” Though some audience members groaned, Bujalski made a valiant effort to respond. (After a few moments, he asked, “Is it okay if I come back to that one?” “No!” was the angry response.)

Bujalski shot the film on old Portapak video cameras from the late 1970s he’d purchased on eBay; he meticulously edited the video to look and feel as if it had been made on a linear editing system though it was done on Final Cut Pro. By trading in his beloved 16mm cameras from his previous three films — Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2008) — he has captured the look and feel of the early video era.

Computer Chess not only gets its techie vocab right, it also captures the spirit of the entire era (aging hippies and emerging New Agers mingling with proto-nerds), and does so without being mean-spirited. In fact, it was so scientifically spot-on it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year’s festival — an award given to the best feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. Computer Chess was also my favorite feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it was over.

Sundance 2013: the way of the gun


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his third report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Read his first two reports here and here.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis’ Philippines-set Metro Manila took home the Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance. It’s a gritty, neo-realist journey into Manila’s Catch 22‘d slums that’s every bit as shocking as it is hypnotic. When I saw it, the entire audience (myself included) was left gasping for air while wiping their tears — it’s ruthlessly realistic, insanely inspired, and a taut thriller to boot.

Metro Manila is a perfect precursor to Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, a 320-minute exploration of 70 years of corruption in the small town of Wasseypur — the coal capital of India — that has to be one of the most monumental political action films ever made. I’ve now seen it twice, and its attention to detail is so precise that in certain scenes, if you can recognize the Hindi movie posters on the alley walls, you’ll be able to pinpoint what month and year the film has splintered into.

Given Gangs‘ brutal violence and slang-filled dialogue, Kashyap admitted he was surprised that it was not banned in India, since his previous films had been. (More props for the director: he showed up for a 1am festival Q&A.) This towering achievement will no doubt excite fans of Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster films; it’s a jaw-dropping, Godfather-esque odyssey that’s both historical allegory and unstoppable action flick.

Shifting focus to urban America: Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (part of Sundance’s NEXT programming, highlighting “impactful” indies screening out of competition; more on the NEXT films in an upcoming post) is inspired by Washington DC’s 2002 sniper attacks, specifically focusing on the two shooters as they meet, diabolically prepare, and eventually execute their plan. The first post-film question, vehemently asked, was “Why didn’t you make a film about the victims?” But its point of view is what makes Blue Caprice so profound; it encourages the audience to attempt to understand the attackers, much like Fritz Lang’s classic murder tale M (1931).

Director Moors and lead actor Isaiah Washington (as John Allen Muhammad) do an astounding job leading us through an absolutely terrifying story, and they are able to do so without resorting to broad strokes. Interestingly, with both the US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award: US Dramatic going to Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s wonderfully executed yet disappointingly one-dimensional Fruitvale, it seems that many audiences are not prepared for such a brave and complex film as Blue Caprice. It’s a film based on a real-life tragedy that asks a lot of questions, pushes a lot of buttons, and offers no answers.        

Sundance (and Slamdance) 2013: ‘Dirties’ talk


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his second report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Check out his first report here.

The most controversial and inspired film amid this year’s Utah fests actually screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for a Narrative Feature. The Dirties, by 28-year-old Canadian writer-director-star Matthew Johnson, is an utterly brilliant, unstoppably hilarious found footage entry that follows two high school cinephiles as they try and make a documentary about “bullying,” while they themselves continue to get uncomfortably bullied at their own school.

Both characters use their real names in the film and have bedrooms filled to the brim with movie posters, comic books, and Magic: The Gathering cards. Johnson and co-star Owen Williams are such self-aware and self-referential movie geeks that you might feel as if you are watching a documentary about your own high-school experiences.

While I could tag the film nicely as Dawson’s Creek meets Man Bites Dog (1992), I’m betting Johnson’s already thought of that one. So what I want to stress is the level of honesty, originality, and terrifyingly timely subject matter this filmmaker brings to this incredibly contemporary story. His 10-episode Canadian web series, Nirvana: The Band The Show (2008), showed his knack for frenetically exposing a teenage boy’s passion. The Dirties digs a whole lot darker and deeper. Could he be the male counterpart to Lena Dunham? Make sure to watch the Red Band teaser trailer (above); it’s as chilling and funny as the film itself.

Sundance 2013: Viva Silva!


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his first report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.

This year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals were both outstanding, so I did my best to pack my schedule as full as humanly possible (sacrificing sleep in the process). With close to 50 programs achieved, I can assure you it’s gonna be one helluva year for cinema. Make sure to mark some of these titles down for 2013.

Filmmaker Sebastián Silva brought two new entries to Sundance, and they both happened to be two of my most cherished experiences. Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic were filmed in Chile at the same time, and showcase the almighty Michael Cera — who learned Spanish just for these projects. If you are able to avoid the countless spoiler-heavy reviews (this isn’t one of them) and enter these films at your own risk, you will be treated to Silva’s masterful, even transcendental, slow burn.

As he did in The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2010), Silva allows his “unlikable” characters to reach some surprising conclusions — meaning audiences should leave any snap judgments at the door. Delivering a pair of typically charismatic performances, Cera is the ideal choice to guide viewers into Silva’s bold and often profound terrain. (Audiences who continue to dismiss Cera as playing the same character over and over need to get over themselves. Should we also ridicule Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, and Woody Allen for not being Daniel Day-Lewis caliber? Cera knows how to use his strengths, and perhaps is even able to use them against us.)

Cera’s co-stars are also worthy of note: Gaby Hoffman (in Crystal Fairy) and Juno Temple (in Magic Magic). Both give stunning and heartfelt performances that may downright mystify many modern misanthropic maniacs. Crystal Fairy, in particular, perfectly explores the side effects of the modern drug scene, though quite a few critics around me seemed to misunderstand the protagonists’ motives. These responses baffled me, since both movies feel like updated versions of late 1960s counterculture flicks like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969).

Yep, you read that right: Jesse saw nearly 50 programs this year. Stay tuned for his next report!