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Go for Goth

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM On paper, it seems like an odd match: director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett of indie horror hit You’re Next (2011), and British actor Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey‘s erstwhile heir. On screen, however, the trio’s The Guest is the boogeyman movie of the year, weaving a synth-scored tale of a small-town family startled by the sudden appearance of a soldier (Stevens) who claims to have known the son and brother they lost in Afghanistan. David is polite, handsome, and eager to assist in any way — whether it’s carrying kegs into a party with just-out-of-high-school Anna (Maika Monroe), or breaking faces on behalf of bullied teen Luke (Brendan Meyer).

You know what happens when something’s too good to be true, and the filmmakers know you know, enabling them to have a great time teasing out this trick-or-treat of a thriller, which is set during the cell phone era but references films like 1987’s The Stepfather and John Carpenter’s 1980s heyday (which, again, they know you know — and love, just like they do). I spoke with all three during a recent phone interview.

San Francisco Bay Guardian The Guest reminded me of another thriller that came out this year, Cold in July — both tell contemporary stories using 1980s retro style. What inspired that approach?

Simon Barrett After You’re Next, Adam and I wanted to think about what got us making movies in the first place. All three of us came of cinematic awareness during the 1980s, so a lot of the movies that inspired us were genre films of the mid-to-late ’80s. We wanted to do something that had that same fun spirit and aesthetic, but we didn’t just want to do an homage or an imitation, because that’s really easy and lazy. It was about taking that same tone those movies had, and doing something original with it. That was our goal from the very beginning, when Adam started talking about The Terminator (1984) and Halloween (1978).

Adam Wingard I read an article recently about how the most homaged filmmaker of the year is John Carpenter. There’s this weird zeitgeist of filmmakers who are inspired by Carpenter and other ’80s filmmakers. All of us making these movies are around the same age, and we all grew up on movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It seems like that’s what’s in the air.

SB They Live (1988) is one we’ve referenced quite a bit — the humor in that film is so extraordinarily innovative and insane. There’s never any overt jokes, but there’s a fight scene in an alley that keeps going and going, until it becomes hysterical. That’s the humor that we were influenced by and respond to: letting something become ridiculous, and calling attention to the ridiculousness, but still taking your story and characters seriously. Carpenter just nailed that and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

SFBG Dan, were you a fan of horror before making The Guest?

Dan Stevens Adam and Simon are far more steeped in that specific genre than I am, but I certainly grew up on a lot of cult 1980s and 1990s American horror films. The Halloween films were huge in the UK. The action thriller genre was also massive, and something we were kind of baptized with in Britain.

AW It’s interesting how these cult 1980s genre films are, pretty much worldwide, a good connecting point. When we first talked, Dan and I had a very easy conversation, because we had those through lines. Beyond that, we both connected on understanding the sense of humor in Simon’s script, and realized we should be working together.

SFBG The soundtrack — which includes Sisters of Mercy, Front 242, and Love and Rockets — plays a huge role in The Guest. What motivated your musical choices?

AW Growing up in Alabama, I knew these pot dealers who were super gothed out. I always thought that was interesting, that even in the smallest towns there are still these weird subcultures. Through people like that I became aware of bands like Death in June and Front 242. I always thought that would be an interesting thing to bring into a movie, because I hadn’t seen somebody take a realistic approach to goth sensibilities.

I had a couple of songs in mind that I thought would be good for the movie, but I didn’t want to just make a film that had a bunch of music that I thought was cool. If it’s gonna be in there, it’s got to be story-oriented and character-motivated. I knew, also, that this wasn’t a straightforward horror film, but that I wanted it to take place during Halloween. So the approach to horror in The Guest isn’t necessarily in terms of it trying to be scary. It was more taking that goth approach to it in general, which is like having fun with the macabre and that type of energy. It’s more like fun-scary imagery than it is actually horrifying. 2

 

THE GUEST opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.

Georgian rhapsody

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Spanning nine months of programs and a full century of cinema, “Discovering Georgian Cinema” is the kind of ambitious exhibition that reminds us how much of film history is yet to be written. The series, presented by the Pacific Film Archive, represents a remarkable feat of coordination: Its opening weeks feature prints from Toulouse, Berlin, New York, Tbilisi, and, most delicately given recent history, Moscow.

Building upon a core collection of Soviet-era Georgian films held by the PFA, curator Susan Oxtoby organized the program around three periods: the silent era, the art cinema explosion of the 1950s through the 1980s, and the contemporary scene. While many titles will be unfamiliar even to dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles, echoes and premonitions of broader trends in international cinema abound. To take only one example, series opener Blue Mountains (1984) seems to draw upon Jacques Tati while at the same time anticipating the New Romanian Cinema in its elegant formalist satire of state bureaucracy. But then perhaps the ultimate lesson of a series like “Discovering Georgian Cinema” is that every New Wave renews some earlier illumination.

SF Bay Guardian What was the genesis of your work on “Discovering Georgian Cinema”?

Susan Oxtoby The genesis for the project really comes from the fact that BAM/PFA holds an important collection of Soviet Georgian films — 37 prints in total. Individual films have shown in different contexts, but we haven’t done a major Georgian series in many years. In 2011 I received a curatorial research grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to travel to other archives with significant holdings, and then we raised funds for a touring series from the National Endowment for the Arts. We invited Nino Dzandzava, who is currently working at the National Archives of Georgia, to visit Berkeley to examine our collection. Viewing prints with her was a wonderful experience because she could supply me a sense of the history behind these films and the connections between them. There was also my visit to the Tbilisi International Film Festival, which was extraordinary in terms of getting a sense of the current film scene in Georgia and having an opportunity to meet with contemporary filmmakers.

SFBG Was it always your intention to be linking the historical films to more contemporary work?

Oxtoby Absolutely, I think it is very important to see the contemporary era in light of the history of Georgian cinema. It’s quite evident that young filmmakers working in Georgia today are aware of their country’s film heritage.

SFBG Can you talk about some of your priorities in trying to create a context for a national cinema?

Oxtoby My priority is to show strong examples of what has been created in Georgia within an art cinema tradition. Over the course of the retrospective we will spotlight numerous directors and have a chance to examine their individual film styles. We launch the series with two guests from Tbilisi, veteran filmmaker Eldar Shengelaia (The Blue Mountains, 1963’s The White Caravan, 1968’s An Unusual Exhibition), who will present his own films plus his father Nikoloz Shengelaia’s Twenty-Six Commissars (1928); and Nana Janelidze, the executive director of the Georgian National Film Center, who is herself a filmmaker (2011’s Will There Be A Theater Up There?!, 1985’s The Family) and screenwriter (1984/1987’s Repentance). In October, film historian Peter Rollberg will join us to speak about Georgian films from the silent era, and archivist Nino Dzandzava will present a program of Georgian Kulturfilms from the early 1930s. In mid-November, Levan Koguashvili (2010’s Street Days, 2013’s Blind Dates) will be our guest.

SFBG The silent films in the series that I’ve seen are quite striking in the way they refigure elements of Soviet filmmaking. A film like Eliso (1928) has such strong elements of montage.

Oxtoby Yes, that’s true. We will present Eliso with a newly commissioned score adapted from traditional Georgian folk songs by Carl Linich and performed by Trio Kavkasia on October 25 and 26; this will be a truly unique way to experience this beautiful silent era classic presented with choral accompaniment. The silent era films by Ivan Perestiani, Mikhail Kalatozov, Nikoloz Shengelaia, Lev Push, and others are absolutely wonderful. There’s also an interesting short 40-minute silent film called Buba (1930) by Noutsa Gogoberidze, which we will screen on November 8. She was traveling in the same circles with Dovzhenko and Eisenstein and collaborated with the avant-garde painter David Kakabadze, but her work was not endorsed by the Stalin regime and so she was more or less written out of film history. Her film is a bit like Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933), made a few years later.

SFBG Were there any other films that were especially surprising to you in terms of style or theme?

Oxtoby Oh yes, many. Little Red Devils (1923) could be a Douglas Fairbanks film; My Grandmother (1929) is Dadaist in character and very fresh stylistically. Then there’s a film like Nikolai Shengelaia’s Twenty Six Commissars (1932), which deals with the geopolitics of the oil fields in Baku — its political concerns might have been pulled out of today’s news headlines. I’m intrigued to see the influence of Italian neorealism on such films as Magdana’s Donkey (1955), Our Courtyard (1956) or even the contemporary work Susa (2010), as well as the influence of the French New Wave on Otar Iosseliani’s films from the 1960s. I want to hear more from the filmmakers and historians as to how much back and forth there was during the Soviet era. How much world cinema was being seen in Tbilisi? How much were filmmakers traveling abroad and seeing things at festivals? One definitely senses a strong connection with international cinema when you watch these films from Georgia. *

DISCOVERING GEORGIAN CINEMA

Sept 26-April 19

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Vortex room

1

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Coherence begins with an important phone conversation that’s cut off by a crappy connection — just as the phone’s owner, Em (Emily Foxler), realizes its screen has spontaneously cracked. It’s the first eerie moment in a film set at a seemingly normal dinner party among four couples: insecure ballet dancer Em and boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), who are teetering on the verge of either taking the next step in their relationship, or breaking up; new-agey older married couple Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Hugh (Hugo Armstrong); the casually dating Amir (Alex Manugian) and Laurie (Lauren Maher); and hosts Lee (Lorene Scafaria), a techie, and her actor husband, Mike (Nicholas Brendon).

About five minutes into the movie, chatter turns to the comet that’s about to pass overhead — a casual conversation topic that soon becomes an invasive presence. Phones don’t work, and the power shuts off — except for that one house a few blocks over that’s mysteriously illuminated. Tension among the group spikes as various members go to investigate and discover that the comet has some serious fucking-with-reality powers. Spooky, pleasingly mind-bending, and highly creative (the whole thing takes place almost entirely within a single room), Coherence only gets more satisfying with multiple viewings. It’s the directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit, a Hollywood veteran who wrote Oscar-winning animated film Rango (2011) and worked on multiple Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Once my brain had time to untangle a bit, we talked Coherence.

SF Bay Guardian You’re known for your work on Rango and the Pirates movies. What drew you to Coherence, which is a completely different type of film?

James Ward Byrkit I actually have a background of working on much more intimate projects — but all these years, because of my drawing abilities, I ended up working on these huge blockbuster films, which I love, and I love those directors, and I love big crews. But I was really craving getting back to the purity of working closely with actors, and concentrating on storytelling and characters. Especially after Rango — which was super-fun, but it was years of manipulating every pixel of every frame — I wanted to get back into something much more improvisational and grounded in bare-bones filmmaking.

SFBG How did you cast your actors?

JWB They were friends of mine — I knew them all, but they didn’t know each other. I cast people that felt like they would be friends, or partners. They met each other for the first time five minutes before we started shooting, and they had to jump right into it. The whole thing was an improvisational experiment.

I’ve always wanted to try something that did not rely on a script, because everything in Hollywood is all about the script, and that’s the only priority; that’s one way to do it, but it’s not the only way to do it. I wanted to get rid of the script so I could get those naturalistic performances. I wanted eight people talking, and overlapping, and having natural speech patterns. The only way you can do that, really, is to get rid of the script and allow them to be in the moment.

SFBG The dialogue may be improvised, but the story is intricately plotted. How did you approach that without a script?

JWB It took a year of just pounding out the story — the twist and turns and the puzzle of it all, figuring out the clues and the structure. I had a very clear, very solid outline that was just for me, though I made it with my co-writer, Alex Manugian, who plays Amir in the film.

When we actually shot it, before they would show up each day, I gave each actor a note card of their character’s motivations, or back story. Little bits and pieces that they could use that night. But they wouldn’t know what any other character got, so it was all a surprise to them how everybody else reacted. And none of them knew how it was going to end.

SFBG Did the actors help create their characters?

JWB I kind of gave them a general background of what their character was, and what their history was, and what their problems were. Basically everybody is in secret conflict with themselves, or with each other. That’s the whole movie: These people who, in the first 10 minutes, they just look like they’re having a party — but there’s all this unspoken conflict going on either between each other or with themselves.

SFBG Can you talk about the unusual editing choice you made, to have scenes abruptly cutting to black?

JWB Part of it was a rhythmic theme, and part of it was a clue. For the people who watch the film multiple times, there’s definitely a pattern of cutting to black that starts to inform what’s going on, which I’m not going to give away [laughs]. Going into black is such an important theme. The lights go out, they’re plunged into blackness. There’s an even darker space when they go outside. And then, the blackness between characters. So when we tried it as an editorial thing, it was so effective that we committed to it and it ended up being something that took many, many, many weeks to perfect. And it still baffles some people, obviously, because it’s so jarring.

SFBG Coherence is a relationship drama, but it’s also a sci-fi film. What inspired you to include those elements?

JWB Well, we basically didn’t have any money [laughs]. I had a camera, some actors that I knew, and a living room — and that’s it. So how do we make a living room more interesting? It got us thinking about Twilight Zone episodes, and how those are often set in very mundane, normal places, and yet there’s this bigger feeling to them because there’s a cosmic story, or a slightly supernatural element that has permeated their reality. And that got me really excited, to think of a fractured reality, and therefore the living room became much bigger.

SFBG Sci-fi without special effects is kind of a genre on the rise.

JWB I love it. My biggest hope is that someday [Coherence] could be on a double or triple feature with Primer (2004) or Timecrimes (2007), or another super low-budget homemade movie. It’s a really exciting realm to be in. I think people went down the wrong road when they started assuming science fiction meant only big visual effects.

SFBG And wait, did you say you filmed it in your living room?

JWB Yeah! We didn’t have any money to rent another house. It was very challenging because my wife was nine months pregnant and she was planning on having a home birth. She said, “You’re gonna have a film shoot in our house weeks before I’m due? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!” I said, “I’m sorry, honey, but if I don’t do it now, we can’t really do it after the baby comes.” And she said, “All right. You have five nights.” We shot five nights, and then a week later, Emily [Foxler] came back to do some pickups around my house, walking around the neighborhood in the darkness. We ended that shoot at one o’clock in the morning; two hours later my wife went into labor. *

COHERENCE opens Fri/27 at the Presidio. For additional theaters, check http://coherencethemovie.com.

Anxious art

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Poland had not been a major hub of film production in the early decades of the medium, and its industry stabilized without getting very interesting in the years after World War II, when a Soviet-backed Stalinist regime founded state-controlled Film Polski. This shotgun wedding of art and bureaucracy wasn’t ideally conducive to creative expression, however. By the mid-1950s younger filmmakers, many graduates from the recently founded National Film School in Lodz, agitated for more independence — which, surprisingly, they won.

The resulting United Groups of Film Production almost immediately began producing work that won international attention and came to be known as the “Polish Film School” of cinema. Then in the 1970s a second wave of distinctive talents arrived, their troubled and ambivalent movies coming to be known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement. Presented by Martin Scorsese, the touring “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” retrospective playing Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive offers 13 features spanning three decades.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-CQj8n3Rek&feature=kp

The series kicks off this weekend with perhaps the most famous films by two polar (ahem) opposites of the school’s first wave: fantasist Wojciech Has and sober, socially conscious realist Andrzej Wajda. The latter sounded a new Polish cinema’s opening salvo with 1955’s A Generation, and is still at it 60 years later. Last year he continued his never-ending project of dramatizing 20th century Polish history with the biographical Walesa: Man of Hope (as yet unreleased in the US), and might yet be active when he hits 90 in 2016.

An honorary Oscar winner, Wajda has been the most imposing presence in Polish cinema for nearly his entire career, even if he’s not the nation’s most fabled cinematic son — that would be Roman Polanski, a sensibility as slippery as Wajda is solid (and sometimes stolid), as well as a director who fled to the West at his first opportunity. (Polanski made a rare return after the fall of Communism, acting the lead in Wajda’s atypical period comedy Zemsta in 2002.) The four features representing Wajda in the PFA series see his development from an edgy young voice to the master artisan of large-canvas, often polemical works on subjects of official import.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) introduced the striking screen presence of Zbigniew Cybulski — one consciously modeled on the magnetic malcontents of James Dean, and Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One — as one of two resistance fighters tasked with assassinating a Communist official just days after the end of World War II. While his partner copes with this now-pointless mission by going on an epic drunk, Cybulski’s Maciek expresses his ambivalence in distracted pursuit of a barmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska). His iconic death scene would influence many others, notably those in Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960). The actor coped with his subsequent international stardom by doing everything to excess; there was grief but not much surprise among those who knew him when he died in a drunken fall at a train station in 1967, not yet 40 but looking much older.

He also has supporting roles in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 slice-of-life demi-thriller Night Train, and in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers from the next year — both long journeys toward dawn, the second set in a jazz-soaked, raffishly disillusioned Warsaw where it’s “harder to catch a taxi than a girl.” The two other Wajda titles here are later epics: 1975’s The Promised Land, a long, lavish and shrill indictment of worker-exploitative Industrial Revolution capitalism; and 1981’s Man of Iron, dramatizing the rise of the Solidarity movement. Man won the Golden Palm at Cannes, but also angered Polish officials sufficiently to drive its director abroad for some years, making films in Germany and France.

By contrast, political — or any — reality is infrequently found in the works of the late Has, whose best films are hothouse phantasmagorias rich in surreal imagery and dreamlike illogic. The PFA series kicks off with his 1964 The Saragossa Manuscript, perhaps that decade’s first “head” film, and duly named by Jerry Garcia as his favorite film. (The musician was involved in the PFA acquiring a print before his death.) Its picaresque maze of tall stories, with beautiful available women ornamenting most of them, remains a stoner’s delight. In a similar vein, Has’ The Hour-Glass Sanatorium a decade later is a triumph of Gothic jumble-sale production design, its own hapless hero pulled down a richly colored rabbit’s hole of dress-up role playing and various perversities at the titular institution.

A much more straightforward costume extravaganza is 1960’s Black Cross, aka Knights of the Teutonic Order, about the 15th century struggle between Poles and Christian invaders that led to the Battle of Grunwald. Its director Aleksander Ford was a major figure in establishing the post-war state film industry, yet not long after this expensive epic he was purged in a late-decade anti-Semitic campaign, and his unsuccessful attempts at a career overseas ended with suicide in 1980 Florida. A very different historical piece is Kawalerowicz’s 1961 Mother Joan of the Angels, a treatment of the same 17th century alleged convent demon infestation that inspired Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils, and one that’s as quiet and stark as the latter film is hysterical.

The leading lights of the later Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement—which mostly eschewed such grand gestures and bizarre subjects for small, disquieting modern narratives — are represented in three films toward the series’ end. Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1976 Camouflage and 1980 The Constant Factor are terse, bitter portraits of institutional corruption. The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pre-Three Colors series breakout A Short Film About Killing (1987) is, if anything, bleaker: Drawn together by chance and then by tragedy, its protagonists live in a Warsaw where injustice is practically in the air — thanks to the oppressively tinted cinematography — and the climactic events of a murder and an execution have their existential pointlessness underlined by each being excruciatingly prolonged. *

MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS MASTERPIECES OF POLISH CINEMA

June 14-Aug 21, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

Tropical impressions

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cheryl@sfbg.com

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. *

NEW FILIPINO CINEMA

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

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

Vinegar and salt

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The B-movie is alive and well in modern cinema, running the gamut from SyFy dreck like Sharknado (2013) to the populist (and Oscar-winning) entertainment of Quentin Tarantino. But there was a time when an even “lesser” kind of film thrived, something less commercial than the genre film or the indie. These were films experienced communally, in dark, dirty movie theaters, with like-minded cinema adventurers, as well as in the company of perverts, weirdos, and people looking for a cheap place to sleep. Yep, we’re talking about the grindhouse: grade-Z movies and X-rated films.

Vinegar Syndrome knows all about the grindhouse. As one of a small crop of emerging, genre-focused home video releasing companies, VS was born in 2012 when film collectors Joe Rubin and Ryan Emerson raised $10,000 via Kickstarter to restore and release a set of lost H.G. Lewis films. Rubin and Lewis used their profits to keep going, their mission to preserve a number of niche exploitation films that have been forgotten over time, including bizarro action and horror flicks and a good deal of what is basically ’70s and early ’80s porn.

Possessing a preservation spirit similar to that of the late Mike Vraney’s fanatical Something Weird Video, VS shares its Connecticut headquarters with film restoration lab OCN Digital Labs (also run by Rubin and Lewis) and has built its small cult following through delivering consistently high-quality releases of long-forgotten gems, all mastered in-house from original camera negatives. The year ahead bristles with promising releases from San Francisco luminary Alex deRenzy and gay icon Wakefield Poole, as well as a streaming service called Skinaflix, which promises rare erotica in full HD. VS also caters to horror fans, teasing a slew of titles that includes a 4k restoration of Troma’s groovy Graduation Day (1981), as part of a multi-title deal with the company.

Some of these films are tremendously amateur and that’s half the fun. For today’s burgeoning cinephile audience, it’s exciting to see films that give the finger to established tenets of scriptwriting and mise en scène. In many ways, the crazy-passionate filmmakers of the grindhouse circuit were closer to true auteurs than the filmmakers we see today, and they were thriving in a time when low budgets led to some truly inventive shortcuts. Below, some highlights (and/or lowlights, and I mean that in the best way possible).

 

THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

Alice, a young New York City hippie, receives an obscene phone call and is so taken by the experience that she sets out to find the caller. Along the way she bumps into a number of colorful characters who would impede her quest, and the film culminates in a surreal series of scenes involving a man in a pig mask and hypersexual animation. Shot in black and white, and featuring a magnetic performance from Laugh-In performer Sarah Kennedy, writer-director Nelson Lyon’s film is a quirky and calculated trip into the New York underground.

 

GOOD LUCK, MISS WYCKOFF (1978)

In 1954 Kansas, Miss Wyckoff (Anne Heywood) is a teacher who discovers that her solitary lifestyle has resulted in early-onset menopause. Her psychiatrist (the ever-delightful Donald Pleasence) suggests she find a lover, and her attempts to embrace the unfamiliar landscape of her femininity result in disappointment, sexual assault, and a thoroughly unhealthy relationship with the school janitor. Based on the novel by William Inge (with a screenplay by Polly Platt, who also wrote that year’s Pretty Baby), it offers a fearless look at sexuality and racism in an era that rarely engaged such hotbed issues.

 

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)

Horror anthologies were big in the 1980s, but Night Train to Terror came about in an altogether unfamiliar fashion. Director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen took three feature-length films, chopped them down to about 20 minutes each, inserted claymation gore scenes and crude-looking monsters, and filmed a wrap-around story about God and the devil on a train with a New Wave dance band. All these poorly advised decisions came together to create a truly disorienting, hilarious throwback experience that would play well at your favorite bad movie night.

 

VIRGIN AND THE LOVER (1973)/ LUSTFUL FEELINGS (1978)

There’s no getting around it: a good portion of what VS releases comes from the era known colloquially as “porno chic.” These are full-on hardcore adult pictures, but the stigma of the X rating doesn’t indicate a lack of creativity. Often, the sex scenes were a commercial concession to gain financing. The fact that they attracted raincoaters and other negative attention was merely the price of doing business.

This double feature from notable adult filmmaker Kemal Horulu is a formidable starting point for someone unfamiliar with the genre. Virgin and the Lover is a lighthearted tale of a young man having difficulty with his strange feelings of love for a mannequin, and Lustful Feelings is the downbeat ordeal of a woman who enlists in the sex trade to pay off her drug dealing boyfriend’s debt to the mob. If you’re too young to have seen an adult film with a plot before, prepare to have your assumptions shattered.

 

A LABOR OF LOVE (1975)

For a deeper look at the adult film industry of the 1970s, A Labor of Love is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Iranian filmmaker Henri Charr, who ran out of money while making his independent film The Last Affair. Desperate for funding, Charr agreed to shoot a number of adult scenes to increase the likelihood of a profit for his investors, and what follows is an account of a cast and crew with no background in the adult scene attempting to make a professional and meaningful adult film. The actors and crew are brutally honest in their unfamiliarity with the production’s new direction, and a number of the challenges that arise on set are a far cry from Hollywood’s usual horror stories. *

http://vinegarsyndrome.com/

 

Eternal beauty

1

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Hollywood in the 1920s was shameless about inventing fictitious back stories for its stars, especially those “exotics” exploited for their allegedly foreign-bred mystery and sexual magnetism. The enormous success of Rudolph Valentino — whose 1921 breakthrough feature The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse opens this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival — sparked a particular craze for “Latin lover” types whose true ethnicity was often disguised. (One such heartthrob, Ricardo Cortez, was in fact Jewish New Yorker Jacob Krantz — and when word got out that he was no Spaniard, the studio “confessed” that he was “really” Viennese.)

Yet the era’s leading Latina actress required little such invention, because her biography already sounded like a studio press release. Dolores del Rio was born Maria Dolores Asúnsolo y López Negrete to a wealthy, well-connected Mexico City family of Spanish ancestry. Convent-educated, she married at age 16 a patron of the arts over twice her age, with whom she honeymooned in Europe for two years. Upon returning home, she attended a wedding at which her beauty caught the eye of Edwin Carewe — a Hollywood producer, director, agent, and manager who in all those capacities soon began making her a star. Her first hit was as the main girl fought over by ever-sparring BFF Marines in World War I comedy-adventure What Price Glory?, a 1926 smash.

Her exquisite three-quarter-moon face, framed by long jet-black hair, then graced a series of romances in which she played Russian peasants, tropical maidens, hot-blooded gypsies, Carmen (of operatic fame), and Ramona (1928) — the latter a gorgeous half-caste in old Spanish California. She’s yearned over by the genteel master of the ranchero (Roland Drew), but prefers virile Indian shepherd Alessandro (Ohioan Warner Baxter, shirtless but wearing plenty of shiny bronzer). This third screen version of a hugely popular 1884 novel was boosted at the box office by an original title song recorded by many (including trilling soprano del Rio herself), and featured in the 1928 film’s synchronized-sound version (which offered sound effects and music but no dialogue).

Ramona was assumed lost for decades until a Czech-market print was discovered recently, its restoration premiering in Los Angeles just two months ago. The 2014 SF Silent Film Festival is full of movies that belie their age in one way or another — yet this hunk of overripe hooey feels a thousand years old. It’s surely the worst film in the festival, what with its mean-crone stepmother (“If you marry without my consent, the jewels will go to the church!”), teetering pileup of melodramatic crises, and particularly howl-worthy happy ending. Nor has del Rio’s heavily gestural performance aged well, with nary a genuine note to be found in an emotional gamut that galumphs from cow-eyed innocence to amnesiac shock. Still, she’s gorgeous. Whether cast as prole or grande dame, her looks were so striking it was natural for del Rio to become a beauty icon, promoting cosmetics and fashion as “the perfect feminine figure” — a title she won in leading movie mag Photoplay’s 1933 poll of industry glamour experts.

Del Rio was very conscious of her image — and of her responsibility representing Mexican culture to the world. Unlike rival Lupe Velez, she preferred projecting a more languorous, refined persona than the stereotypically comic, tantrum-throwing “hot mama” Latina. She disliked skimpy costumes and risqué scenes (though one of her biggest hits would be 1932’s Bird of Paradise, a charming bauble of pure eye-candy in which her island princess and Joel McCrea’s sailor pitch woo wearing as little as possible). She turned down the female lead in 1934’s Viva Villa!, suspecting that film’s take on recent Mexican history would be controversial at home. (Indeed, it was banned there.)

Her public character was invariably elegant and dignified — never mind that sometimes her affairs preceded her divorces. One high-profile lover was 10-years-younger Orson Welles. He took her to Citizen Kane‘s 1941 premiere and starred her in 1943’s spy intrigue Journey Into Fear. But when their relationship flamed out, and Hollywood’s affection too had cooled, del Rio at last returned to Mexico. There, she soon established herself as the local film industry’s leading female star — exclusively playing suffering, virtuous heroines — winning a total of four Ariels (Mexico’s Oscar) and very rarely returning to English-language features. When she did, it was no longer as the hothouse object of desire, but as a sacrificing mother, notably to Elvis in Flaming Star (1960) and to Sal Mineo in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), both times playing Native Americans à la the half-Indian Ramona. Such semi-color blind casting and “proud matriarch” roles provided a logical last act to a career that was honorable and iconic — if seldom quite so impressive in, y’know, the acting department.

Ramona may survive primarily as a somewhat campy cultural artifact, but nearly everything else in this year’s Silent Fest remains outstanding artistically, including 1928 German heartbreaker Under the Lantern, and the same year’s fine British working-class drama Underground. There’s also 1923’s The Sign of Four, an excellent Sherlock Holmes adventure, so long as you can overlook some very dated race and class attitudes; atypical early works by Ozu (1933 gangster saga Dragnet Girl) and Dreyer (sprightly 1920 The Parson’s Widow); a goofy Soviet science fiction (1936’s Cosmic Voyage); mountain climbing documentary The Epic of Everest (1924); plus vehicles for Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, and pioneering French comedian Max Linder (1921’s Seven Years Bad Luck). *

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL

Thu/29-Sun/1, most shows $15-20

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.silentfilm.org

 

New direction

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cheryl@sfbg.com

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 festival.sffs.org.

Shooting straight

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The last time Elaine Stritch was in San Francisco was in 2003, at the Curran Theatre, for the Tony Award–winning Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Then in her mid-70s, the legendary actress and singer appeared on a bare stage in her trademark suggestion of an outfit — black stockings and an oversized dress shirt — for a revealing, song-studded solo confessional about love, ambition, alcoholism, and the jumble of a career in a theatrical golden age. It was an irresistible look back at (and behind) a brilliant and rocky Broadway (as well as film and television) career that began in 1946, and continues.

Stritch advances and expands the conversation started in At Liberty with her latest appearance, onscreen in director and producer Chiemi Karasawa’s 80-minute portrait, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Arguably still more fascinating and frank in her mid-80s, Stritch proves once again an undeniable presence — uncensored, irascible, charming, and witty — but it’s all now balanced with a more pronounced vulnerability, captured in disarmingly honest moments of reflection, struggle, and even crisis.

Made over the course of two years of intimate observation, the film chronicles Stritch as she prepares for a number of returns. One is to the stage, to sing Stephen Sondheim again, the composer with whom she is indelibly identified thanks, in no small part, to her original interpretation of Joanne and “The Ladies Who Lunch” in 1970’s Broadway smash Company. Rehearsing with longtime musical director, accompanist, and friend Rob Bowman (a stalwart presence here), Stritch, then on the cusp of her 87th birthday, becomes a study in perseverance and hard-won skill in the face of an aging body menaced by diabetes.

“It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim’s lyrics when you don’t have diabetes,” notes Stritch. “But everybody’s got a sack of rocks, as my husband [John Bay] used to say.”

En route to a gig in East Hampton, Stritch shows she’s not above playing up the senior citizen at times: When a siren hoots at her limo (illegally parked in the fire zone outside a Starbucks), Stritch, a large blended beverage in her hand, doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh, it’s the cops. I’ll limp,” she decides, successfully deflecting the local fuzz.

But the next morning, Bowman breaks the news that the gig has been canceled owing to the threat of a hurricane off the coast of Long Island. Still in bed and feeling less than 100 percent, the star is elated. A short time later, she spirals into a diabetes-induced breakdown, plagued by mental confusion and fear, eventually losing her capacity to speak coherently as an ambulance arrives to rush her to the hospital. It’s a harrowing scene, but its unabashed honesty is part of what makes the documentary more than the usual star bio.

At the same time, the film records another return for Stritch, as she makes the momentous decision to leave her Upper East Side home to relocate back to Michigan, where she grew up in the 1930s, the youngest of three daughters in a well-to-do Irish-Welsh family of devout Catholics headed by an executive at B.F. Goodrich. It had been some 65 years since the bold but wholly innocent young Stritch, fleeing the safe but stultifying confines of her childhood home, arrived to conquer the Big Apple, cutting her teeth in Erwin Piscator’s Drama Workshop at the New School alongside such classmates as Marlon Brando (Stritch offered up details of the steamy relationship there in At Liberty).

The years spent shooting the life of a living legend, an elderly yet very active one with a well-earned reputation for being difficult, could not have been a walk in the park. Shoot Me (whose playful title might be thought to run in two directions at once) makes a virtue of that at times, no doubt, exasperating bargain. Stritch says she had to think about it before accepting the project.

“I wasn’t crazy about the idea,” she admitted in a recent phone conversation while she was on a promotional swing through New York. “I was a little skeptical, and afraid of being bored. But I wasn’t bored for a minute.”

And the camera, there every step of the way, seems for its part thoroughly mesmerized and intrepid. Stritch, after all, is not above directing the show herself. “I think you should be watching me unpack the muffins,” she insists at one point, turning a desultory scene of domestic routine into a just slightly uncomfortable confrontation with a conciliatory cameraman. At other times, the camera is her confessor, as when, from a hospital bed, she relates her mixed emotions and convictions about meeting the inevitable end of life.

“Your tendency might be, if you didn’t know her, to disregard how vulnerable she is, and how deep her insecurities are,” says Hal Prince, whose storied accomplishments on Broadway include producing and directing Company. One of several impressive interviews of Stritch friends and colleagues, Prince here sounds a note that echoes throughout an untidy but deeply personal, touching but rousing documentary profile: “She’s complicated and she’s an eccentric. But you’ve got to deal with Elaine’s eccentricities because, ultimately, they’re worth it.” *

 

ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.

Telling tales

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cheryl@sfbg.com

CAAMFEST The feel-good movie of last year’s Center for Asian American Media film festival was The Cheer Ambassadors, a documentary charting the high-flying accomplishments of Bangkok University’s cheerleading team. This year’s The Road to Fame taps the same performance theme, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy that tugs at each of its peppy subjects. The setting is Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, where young adults envision careers like those of celebrity alums Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. The reality, of course, is that the majority of them will struggle to get any job after graduation, much less realize their show-biz fantasies.

Added pressure is applied by the kids’ parents. Though Chinese youth may have adopted Western-style dreams of the spotlight, many in the older generation were denied the chance to go to college or experience any freedom of occupational choice. All of The Road to Fame‘s featured subjects are in the 19-to-21 age range, born in the era of China’s one-child policy, so the incentive to succeed is particularly urgent, for both financial and emotional reasons. With two parents and four grandparents looking on, “There are six pairs of eyes on only one child,” points out drama teacher Liu Hongmei, whose own martial-arts movie career was supplanted by her desire to work with students.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzaI2IW0hLk

Given all of these factors, the choice of musical Fame — about a performing-arts school teeming with wannabe stars — as the kids’ final showcase is wonderfully apt. As a bonus, American teachers with Broadway bona fides (the lead has a hint of Corky St. Clair flair) have come to China to work with the students, including standouts like charismatic Chen Lei, who comes from “a simple family” that expects her to take care of them, frustrating her desires to work abroad; and Wu Heng, a talented singer with luxuriant pop-star hair whose parents joke (or are they joking?) about him supporting them. Tension arises during casting, and the expected backstage drama ensues as “A” and “B” casts are chosen and the kids — already fearing the uncertainty of life post-graduation — start to get a sense of how difficult making it will be. On a side note, The Road to Fame is the latest from Chinese-born, US-educated blogger and filmmaker (2005’s Beijing or Bust) Hao Wu, who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2006 while filming a documentary on Christian Chinese house churches. (Presumably, the government viewed musical theater as a more “appropriate” topic.)

Along with The Road to Fame, CAAMFest’s documentary competition is composed almost entirely of urgently contemporary tales. In American Arab, Iraqi American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi takes a deeply personal look at what it’s like to live in the US — specifically, small-town Iowa — post-9/11 with the first name “Usama.” (The results are not entirely surprising.) More compelling is Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson’s Stories From Tohoku, a sensitive study of Japanese still struggling to rebuild after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Interviews with survivors, as well as Japanese Americans (including Kristi Yamaguchi, who visits the region to lend support), illuminate the incredible resilience of people whose communities were completely flattened.

“My history has disappeared, so at this point, all I can do is enjoy my life,” says one woman as she points out where her house used to stand. Though not everyone reacted with such calmness — a chef who volunteered at a relief center recalls becoming resentful amid increasing demand for his services — there’s an overall sense that the culture’s embrace of what Zen Buddhism terms “Gaman,” or “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” helps Japanese recoup from tragedy, be it war, internment camps (in the case of Japanese Americans), or natural disaster.

Less elegantly crafted but no less searing is Duc Nguyen’s Stateless, about the handful of Vietnamese people still holding out hope for resettlement after years or even decades of living as illegal aliens in the Philippines. Aided by a determined lawyer whose practice seems to be their only source of advice and hope, the refugees — unable to return home and live under a post-war regime that’s marked them as troublemakers — struggle to get by, with the golden promise of asylum in the US shimmering just out of reach. It’s a moving tale, but it’s compressed into a 55-minute film that sometimes comes up short on context.

The sole film with experimental leanings in the documentary competition is Lordville, a quiet exploration of the nearly abandoned town of Lordville, NY. Though a few determined eccentrics have kept the population of the oft-flooded burg from dipping to zero, it’s the past that filmmaker Rea Tajiri, a Lordville resident, is most interested in, thanks to her ownership of a home owned by one of the town’s founders. Native American history, misty roads, broken-down houses, ever-present flowing water, and the musings of neighbors, a genealogist, and an environmental scientist fill in this portrait of a place where natural and human history are often at odds, and yet are inextricably bound.

The remaining films in the doc competition: Tenzin Tsetan Choklay’s Bringing Tibet Home, about a Tibetan artist who smuggles soil out of his embattled homeland for an installation in India; Masahiro Sugano’s Cambodian Son, about Cambodian American poet and activist Kosal Khiev; and Esy Casey’s Jeepney, about the Philippines’ iconic public-transport buses. *

CAAMFEST

March 13-23, most shows $12

Various SF and East Bay venues

www.caamedia.org

 

Women with movie cameras

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arts@sfbg.com

CAAMFEST A beautiful butch moviemaker with a penchant for Peking opera divas. A dogged indie documentarian willing to stalk her prey, be it politically radical or the hard-partying dead. These are but a few of the unusual suspects caught in the viewfinders of CAAMFest 2014‘s Asian and Asian American female directors.

Is there a way to knit together their concerns, essentialize their imagery, and boil down their movies to something beyond stereotype and cliché? It would take a revolution in imagination, underlined by a political charge and peopled by well-defined personalities pushed to the margins. Their few numbers on a larger directorial stage dominated by white men throws their strong subject matter into sharp relief.

You can feel it in even the shortest of documentaries, like the 26-minute festival-closing documentary Delano Manongs, by Emmy-winning Berkeley moviemaker Marissa Aroy, who gives Filipino bachelor farmworkers and organizer Larry Itliong their due in the formation of the United Farm Workers union. Or in films that span more than a half a decade of interviews, such as American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, even when LA director Grace Lee quips in a voice-over aside that while interviewing Detroit activist and citizen intellectual Boggs, she’s not immune from “going back and forth with her on Skype trying to understand what she’s talking about.” (More on that film below.) What gets lost in translation? These directors, more often than not, foreground their attempts to read between the lines and penetrate a fog of forgetfulness and counter-histories in order to get to a few truths, subjective and otherwise.

Such is the case of Hong Kong documentarian S. Louisa Wei, who unearths the once-dumpster-relegated tale of SF Chinatown-born-and-bred Esther Eng, the first Chinese American woman director, in Golden Gate Girls — with rich, mixed results. Now little-known due to the loss of many of the 10 Cantonese-language features she made in the US with producer Joseph Sunn Jue (whose Grandview Film Company gets its own CAAMFest tribute), among others, and Hong Kong during its first “golden age” of moviemaking, the inspiring, enterprising Eng appeared to take difference in stride. First, she was a producer of likely the first Cantonese-language film made in Hollywood (the 1936 nationalist melodrama Heartaches), and then the versatile director and writer of women-centered features starring her favored Peking opera performers. All the while, she lived as an out lesbian who liked to be called “Brother Ha,” wore suits and her hair styled in a boyish crop, and cohabitated with one of her leading ladies and “bosom friends” in 1930s Hong Kong on the brink of Japanese invasion.

Candid about her struggles and sidetracks in uncovering the facts of the director’s life, Wei interviews intimates, like Eng’s youngest sister Sally, cohorts who knew her as a trans-Pacific moviemaker and film distributor who hobnobbed with legendary figures like James Wong Howe, and finally as a popular NYC restaurateur. The documentary maker fills out the cultural context of Eng’s life, with lengthy, at times highly editable, comparisons to Hollywood counterpart Dorothy Arzner and Anna May Wong; riddles the movie with fascinating if weird factoids (the infant Bruce Lee, for example, made his first film appearance in Golden Gate Girls as a baby girl); and regretfully loads on some rather cheesy, cheap-looking digital animation. Still, the sheer interest of Eng’s lost history makes up for any shortcomings.

Wei and Brooklyn Filipina American director Esy Casey know the road to piecing together a documentary is rarely a direct one. Casey’s affectionate Jeepney takes its time over the course of 61 minutes to enjoy the vibrant colors and refracted lights in its ride into the world of the wildly imaginative, color-splashed, mural-and-tagline-spangled jeeps, once in service to World War II US armed forces, now souped-up cheap-fare city buses. The chaos of Manila street traffic, as well as Casey’s interviews with jeepney auto painters, craftspeople, drivers, policy makers, and passengers, as taxes rise and threaten to put customizers and drivers out of business, spur the question “where next?” and add up to a freewheeling and pungently poetic slice of urban Filipino life.

With American Revolutionary, Grace Lee goes deeper with one of the subjects of 2005’s The Grace Lee Project — her study of women who share her surprisingly common name — and plunges into an inspiring life. To say Boggs’ story could only happen in America is a grotesque understatement: Hers is an exceptional tale of American individualism working on behalf of those left behind by American exceptionalism.

Lee details her beginnings as that rare Asian American woman to earn her Ivy League doctorate in the ’30s, only to discover that she was barely employable due to her race and gender; the film then moves to Boggs’ organizing efforts in the African American community before and after the civil rights movement, her role as a grande dame in Black Power circles, and more recently as a community activist instrumental in founding the leadership-nurturing gardening and artmaking projects of Detroit Summer. Less grand but nonetheless revealing are the question ducks, the intellectual battle royales, and the moments when, say, Lee cuts Boggs’ hair in her kitchen. These instances — along with Lee’s highly entertaining 2007 mockumentary, American Zombie, also playing CAAMFest — reveal that Lee is also uniquely and, despite her protests to the contrary, compassionately, one of a kind. *

CAAMFEST

March 13-23, most shows $12

Various SF and East Bay venues

www.caamedia.org

 

Goldies 2014 Film: Malic Amalya

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GOLDIES If you want to see a filmmaker light up brighter than a brand-new projector bulb, ask him about his camera.

“For my 30th birthday, my cousin, Peter Miller, who’s also a filmmaker, sent me this big box,” Malic Amalya says of his Krasnogorsk-3, or K-3, camera. “As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘The best present that could be in there is a 16mm camera.’ And it was! And it’s wonderful. It has different lenses, it can go at different speeds. I’ve been working with 16mm since 2006, and the process is so different than video. You have to set the focus, set the aperture. And it’s so heavy, and so expensive. Every shot that you take matters. That slowing-down really changed my practice, in making every shot intentional.”

That love of 16mm entered Amalya’s life while he was earning a filmmaking MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduating in 2009, he spent a few years in Seattle (he’s been the Experimental Film Curator for the city’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival since 2010) before the San Francisco Art Institute’s MA program lured him south. “I wanted to be re-engaged in the theory process,” he says.

At SFAI, he fell under the spell of legendary underground filmmaking brothers Mike and the late George Kuchar. “When I started there, I had known their work, but not super in-depth,” Amalya says. “Claire Daigle, the director of the MA program, was like, ‘You have to take a Kuchar class!’ So I took a class with Mike, and that informed my thesis in a lot of ways.”

He graduated in 2013, and his graduate thesis, “Divine Abjection,” explores the idea that artists like George Kuchar and John Waters “deploy the grotesque and the titillating to confront the violence targeted at queer bodies,” Amalya explains. “Building on psychoanalytic feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s work on the subject, I assert that these filmmakers command their audience to either find elation within queer ‘perversion’ or eject themselves from the narrative via nausea.”

malic

Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

Given his enthusiastic pursuit of education, Amalya’s career goal is no surprise. “I would love to teach experimental filmmaking or queer filmmaking. I’d like to bring in a lot of theory and academic texts into my production classes.” And he’s on his way; this summer, he’ll be teaching Kuchar films, among others, in “Transgressive Transmissions: The Art of Lo-Fi and High-Horror,” offered as part of SFAI’s public education program.

But don’t get Amalya the film scholar (interested in “messy-grotesque” work) confused with Amalya the artist (who makes what he describes as “quiet-formal” films). “The films I write about are quite different from the work I’m making,” he says. “While my interest in film theory inspires my films, and my knowledge of filmmaking informs my analysis, the distinction in genre helps separate my working styles. My writing process is analytical, while my filmmaking process is very intuitive.”

“A lot of times, my process is filming things that I’m visually interested in. A gesture that I’m interested in capturing, or colors and movement. I’m always filming different things and then sitting with them. I still have rolls of film from years ago, where I’m like, ‘Someday this is going to come together.’ And then, in the editing process, it does.”

Local filmgoers have had a chance to see Amalya’s work at venues like Periwinkle Cinema at Artists’ Television Access and San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads Festival. The latter’s 2013 incarnation is where I caught Amalya’s Gold Moon, Sharp Arrow, a 12-minute exploration of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1963 obedience experiment; it interweaves a re-creation of the experiment (in which participants, asked to administer electric shocks to subjects who faltered in a word game, followed instructions all too well) with shots of nature and decay — a bee’s nest, a chicken coop, smashed windows, an abandoned house. The film was created with Max Garnet, a performance artist and makeup artist Amalya shared a house with in Seattle.

“Max had the idea of working with the Milgram experiment. So I started reading up on it. On YouTube, you can watch the original footage,” he says. “We were interested in the power relationships that were played out in this experiment, and we were talking a lot about the different power engagements in our queer community in Seattle, and in the greater culture. What really captivated me was the word pairings they used in the original experiment and how seemingly arbitrary they were, but how loaded they were as far as gender norms and cultural expectations.”

Though Amalya enjoys working with others, “A lot of my filmmaking practice is me with a camera exploring different places,” he says. “My process of writing scripts, setting up shots, and editing feels very internal, and at times almost private.”

The theories of another experimental artist — musician Michel Chion — have provided further inspiration. “In his book, Audio Vision, Chion argues that sound never replicates an image, but rather adds a another dimension to the picture. [His notion of] ‘added value’ has become a mantra of sorts while I’m working. In my films, I work against illustration, as well as music videos and didactic polemics. Rather, I strive for movement, light, dialogue, and text to ricochet off each other, forging new and unforeseen connections.” *

www.malicamalya.com

Goldies 2014 Dance/Film: San Francisco Dance Film Festival

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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
dance

“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.”

Global tension

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Though its definition has been stretched hither and yon to accommodate films that might appeal to the same retro-minded audience, film noir is a well you can go to only so many times before risking excess repetition or bottom-scraping. So it’s good news that the latest annual edition of SF-bred Noir City at the Castro Theatre — kicking off Fri/24 — expands its programming to the separate-but-equal terrain of 1940s and ’50s crime melodramas made outside the genre’s traditional home. Dubbed “It’s a Bitter Little World,” Noir City 12 has a smattering of Hollywood titles, but otherwise for the first time ranges far afield, hauling in tough dramas from places like England, Argentina, Germany, and Japan.

The somber post-war mood that spurred noir cinema was, in the US, fomented largely by the trauma and disillusionment suffered by both returning vets and those they came back to. But in many other nations, the damage was more than personal and psychological — people returned to cities reduced to rubble after years of fighting, surviving residents already accustomed to extreme deprivation. Plus, former allies and enemy combatants alike were now regarded with suspicion as they lingered at the war’s end to oversee “reconstruction,” the language and cultural gaps and unfamiliar new lines of authority in turn breeding new avenues of corruption and resistance.

Two films most directly dealing with that atmosphere are double-billed Mon/27. Made in 1946 (though it wasn’t released in some parts of divided, occupied Germany until some time later), The Murderers Are Among Us was the first of the “trümmerfilm,” literally “rubble film” — movies portraying Germans’ struggles with recuperation and loss in the wake of humiliating defeat, not to mention the revelations of heinous Nazi war crimes. Returning home from a concentration camp, Susanne (Hildegard Knef) finds her Berlin apartment already occupied by Hans (Wilhelm Borchert), an embittered, alcoholic physician who no longer practices.

Forced to uneasily cohabit, they try to re-establish some semblance of ordinary life, though that effort is imperiled when former military doctor Hans discovers the superior officer he’d thought dead is in fact alive, well, and prospering — suffering no consequences at all for ordering the massacre of a hundred Polish civilians, including women and children. (Purportedly, occupying Soviet authorities insisted on changing the film’s intended ending, fearing that if Hans actually assassinated the officer, viewers would be tempted toward vigilante justice themselves.)

Duly shot amid a city in ruins, Murderers remains potent stuff, even if it soft-pedals certain aspects: For instance, concentration camp survivor Susanne is as Aryan as can be, the subject of a Jewish Holocaust apparently still being too touchy to mention. Knef (who actually had spent time in a prison camp) became an immediate star, a refreshingly unconventional one who spurned Hollywood offers and shrugged off outrage over a nude sequence (in 1950’s The Sinner) with the memorable observation that such “tumult” was ridiculous coming “five years after Auschwitz!”

Its 1948 co-feature Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur (of 1942’s Cat People and other horror classics) was a Hollywood production shot on location in Europe, with a multinational cast playing various figures traveling on a train from Paris to the German capital. When one who’d been an important German anti-Nazi resistance figure is killed en route, lingering wartime animosities are overcome to solve the crime — the tentative friendships among them a simple metaphor for the cooperation required among nations to rebuild after catastrophic conflict.

Less politically tilted, but also dealing with a devastated, immediately-postwar landscape, are Akira Kurosawa’s first two collaborations with dynamic star Toshiro Mifune, screening Sun/26. Mifune plays a seriously ill crook in 1948’s Drunken Angel, then crosses over to play a no-less-edgy junior member of the police force in the following year’s Stray Dog. His protagonist in that film is mortified when the revolver he’s issued is stolen on a tram, then used to commit a series of crimes. His obsessive pursuit of the weapon takes him deep into a remarkably seedy makeshift Tokyo of shanty towns, prostitution, and black markets, everyone flop-sweating amid oppressive summer heat.

Other films examine more ordinary, already-entrenched corruption in post-war power structures: Spanish Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Norwegian Death is a Caress (1949) find members of the social elite going to murderous lengths to hide their infidelities; two excellent British dramas from 1947, It Always Rains on Sunday and the Graham Greene-derived Brighton Rock, are bleak slices of lower-class lives driven to crime and desperation; florid Mexican melodrama Victims of Sin (1951) puts its glamorous heroine (blond Cuban Ninon Sevilla) through a mill of sexual hypocrisies and hot “African” dance numbers.

Noir City 12’s US titles, aptly, focus mostly on international criminal and romantic intrigue: Anthony Mann’s 1949 Border Incident involves Mexican immigrant-worker exploitation; the “exotic” settings are billed up front in 1947’s Singapore (Fred MacMurray, Ava Gardner), 1952’s Macao (Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell), and 1942’s The Shanghai Gesture (Gene Tierney, Victor Mature). The latter two films were both directed by Josef von Sternberg, though only willfully camp Gesture fully recaptured the sensuous aesthetic excesses of his 1930s Dietrich vehicles.

Just one title here is strictly all-American, but it’s an important one: Too Late for Tears is an independently produced 1949 “B” potboiler that fell into the public domain and has only been seen for years in inferior prints. The festival’s Film Noir Foundation is premiering its own painstaking 35mm restoration of this little gem by subsequent sci-fi specialist Byron Haskin (1953’s The War of the Worlds, 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars), wherein velvet voiced LA housewife Lizabeth Scott discovers a mighty capacity for greed, deception, and even murder once a bag full of stolen cash accidentally falls into her hands. *

NOIR CITY 12

Jan 24-Feb 2, $10 (“Passport” pass, $120)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.noircity.com

 

Death and life

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM This week, the African Film Festival National Traveling Series touches down at the Pacific Film Archive, bearing seven features and a number of shorts. The only film to have previous local distribution is Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George, about a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn whose marriage is tested when the wife — played by Walking Dead badass Danai Gurira; her husband is Jim Jarmusch muse Isaach De Bankolé — fails to become pregnant with the son her in-laws demand. The gorgeous photography earned Bradford Young (who also lensed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) a cinematography prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, appealing cast aside, his work is the main reason to catch George on the big screen.

The strongest film in the festival is the one that closes it: David Tosh Gitonga’s crime drama Nairobi Half Life, submitted by Kenya as its first Best Foreign Language Film contender last year. Though it didn’t make the Oscar shortlist (frankly, it was a tough year for foreign films, with Amour claiming all major accolades), it’s easy to see why it made the cut. It’s the not-unfamiliar tale of a rural dreamer named Mwas (the charismatic Joseph Wairimu) who sets out to pursue an acting career in the big city (“where the devil lives,” according to his mother). His improv skills are on point, but he is completely gullible, which makes him a prime target as soon as he arrives in “Nairobbery.”

Urban life offers many hard lessons, whether it’s Mwas finding his place in the gang he joins as a means of survival, or overcoming the snooty dismissals of the professional actors he enounters at theatrical auditions. In both realms, he gets in over his head, but he’s a quick thinker and a talented hustler, which gives him an edge his opponents tend to underestimate. If Nairobi Half Life‘s script leans a little heavily on Mwas being caught between two worlds (alternate title suggestion: Nairobi Double Life), its energy is infectious and its presentation is polished — props to producer Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run, 2012’s Cloud Atlas), whose One Fine Day Film Workshop guided its making.

Director Lonesome Solo’s more rough-hewn and downbeat Burn It Up Djassa also weaves a tale of desperation that culminates in violence, this time in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest metropolis. Again, there’s a conflicted young man at its center: Tony, or Dabagaou” (as he’s known in the ‘hood), whose rise from cigarette seller to killer on the run is shared via a streetwise narrator who lays down story beats like a hip-hop version of Shakespeare; his scenes are the most cinematic amid what feels like an otherwise largely improvised effort. And indeed, Burn It Up Djassa builds to a tragedy of Bardian proportions. You’ll see it coming, but it’s wrenching nonetheless.

Death is the main character in Alain Gomis’ Dakar-set Tey, or “today,” which takes place in a world that resembles ours but with one key supernatural difference: Those who are about to die are given 24-hour advance notice. One morning, seemingly healthy fortysomething Satché wakes up with the grim knowledge that this is his last day. By the same mysterious power, those closest to him — his family, friends, a bitter former lover, and his wife (though not, it seems, his young children) — are also made aware. Though there’s a certain amount of wailing from his older relatives, Satché accepts his fate, drifting through a day that begins with a sort of living funeral, in which both praise and criticism are lobbed at him, and leads into a raucous street parade and hang time with friends.

As the day grows longer, it turns more melancholy; he visits the man who’ll be preparing his corpse for burial, who reminds Satché he’s lucky to know when his time is up so he has a chance to say his good-byes. But Tey isn’t a total bummer of a movie — it has a dreamy quality and moments of humor, as when Satché shows up late to a ceremony held in his honor, but can’t find anything to eat or drink at the completely pillaged catering table. That this dead man walking is played by American slam poet Saul Williams (though Satché is Senegalese) adds to his inherent outsider vibe. The ticking clock breaks down any forced politeness in his encounters, particularly with his wife, which gives us an idea of what he like was before he knew he was about to die.

End-of-life issues also dominate Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Kwaku Ananse, one of three films composing “Between Cultures: Recent African Shorts” (the other two, Faisal Goes West and the Quvenzhané Wallis-starring Boneshaker, were not available for preview; among the features, Damien Ounouri’s documentary Fidaï, a portrait of his Algerian freedom-fighting great uncle, was also unfortunately unavailable). Kwaku Ananse casts the West African trickster character, Anansi (Americans know him from classic children’s book Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti), as its main character’s recently-deceased father. The young woman has come to his Ghanan village for his funeral, and to confront the second family he was keeping on the side. The 25-minute work slowly becomes more fairy tale-like as it progresses, anchored by a solemn but fiery performance by lovely star Jojo Abot.

Elsewhere in the fest, a mockumentary from Cameroon (banned in Cameroon, not coincidentally) about what would happen if the president suddenly disappeared (Le Président) is paired with short Nigerian doc Fuelling Poverty; both examine deep-seated corruption in troubled, post-colonial economies. And for a completely different audience (ages seven and up) is Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie’s Zarafa, the animated story of a young boy who escapes slavery in Africa and becomes enmeshed in the remarkable, mostly true story of the first giraffe to take up residence in France. *

AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL 2014

Jan. 25-Feb. 26, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Pop psychology

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By Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM When Labor Day‘s sexpot convict Josh Brolin holds Kate Winslet and her son hostage in their home, you know he’s dangerous even though he’s not exactly threatening. He starts cooking and fixing stuff around the house, and quickly slips into the role of surrogate father-husband. He’s not just doing it because Winslet’s hot divorcee could use company or her son could use a manly example, he’s filling a void left by an inferior dad whose apology for leaving began, “If I were a better man…” (Labor Day opens in SF next month.)

From fallen fathers to dishonest daddies, 2013’s movies featured a lot of bad providers. Some were crooks, others were benign fuckups, and their stories didn’t necessarily end with redemption or comeuppance. What’s more, most of the men stumbled into fatherhood — and none more clumsily than Delivery Man‘s David, played with surprising pathos by Vince Vaughn.

David’s just gotten excited about his girlfriend’s pregnancy when he learns that his years-ago decision to bank enough sperm to finance a European vacation has resulted in 533 “surprises.” (Director Ken Scott helmed both Delivery Man and its Canadian inspiration, Starbuck.) Oh, and a group of his offspring have filed a class-action lawsuit, intent on discovering who their father is. Granted, it seems unfair to judge him as a parent. He’s blindsided by the existence of his adult kids — and his reaction is to do the embarrassing, heartwarming shit dads do to get to know their teenagers. He may be dumb enough to pile up mob debt, but he’s sticking his neck out as far as it’ll go for relative strangers. (Now that’s the kind of setup — speaking of Brolin flicks — that could almost make Oldboy plausible.)

And then there’s Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s upwardly mobile con artist in American Hustle. Irv cheats on his wife, but he’s loyal as hell to his stepson, and he stays on the take to provide for the little guy. The Wolf of Wall Street‘s manic maniac Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) swindles the one percent purely to satisfy his own ego. The obscenely rich Quaalude addict could easily buy an island for the world’s orphans. He hires hookers instead.

Wolf is full of drug-fueled sequences that are played for laughs, until the ugliest, most over-the-top scene, which transpires in front of Jordan’s toddler daughter. Finally, the line is crossed. Long having left that line in the dust, along with his dignity, is Kyle Chandler’s weary dad in The Spectacular Now — an alcoholic whose wasted life serves as a warning to his teenage son, whose own boozy habits suggest history is about to repeat itself.

If all you had to go on was 2013’s movies, you could believe someone had to grift, jerk off, and/or do time to be a man. Even foreign releases featured patriarchs with bad judgment. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past begins as Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) travels to France to finalize his divorce to anxious Marie (Bérénice Bejo); before long, he’s playing traffic cop and detective in a morass that involves Marie’s new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim) and an array of children (none of whom are Ahmad’s). What some people call help, others call “codependence.”

At least Ahmad’s no Charles Dickens. Betcha didn’t know the man behind Tiny Tim talked a lady into making her daughter his concubine, as depicted in The Invisible Woman (also out next month). Worse, Mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) approves because she knows the pretty lass (Felicity Jones) will never receive a better offer. Ralph Fiennes, who also directs, plays Dickens like a daddy with deep pockets and deeper emotional issues. We know he can always pay the girl’s expenses and return to his baby-wrecked wife — but by all means, let’s celebrate the great writer! While I’m on the tangent of fleeing fathers: someone needs to tell Inside Llewyn Davis‘ title character about condoms. (Preferably not Anchorman 2‘s Brian Fantana, however.)

But the honorary Oscar for Best Portrayal of a Wayward Provider goes to Colin Farrell. It’s mesmerizing how the man can be so lovable and yet so simultaneously disappointing. In Saving Mr. Banks, he’s Travers Goff, a banker who nips bourbon in the office and tells the most drunk-mazing stories. The world he gives his children, including Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, is filled with wonders; the one he forces his wife to occupy is oppressive and darkly real. When he develops consumption (less insulting than the clap but still bad), an imposing agony aunt (Rachel Griffiths) comes to rescue the family, and a legend is born.

When she’s wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who’s intent on bringing the Banks family to the big screen, prim Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) resists. She’s protective of Mr. Banks, the father in Mary Poppins — a character she created as an act of catharsis. Meanwhile, Disney assumes the role of patriarch to America’s children for his own bleak-childhood reasons. Banks may be one of the few films about daddy issues that doesn’t look like Girls Gone Wild.

Making a living can be hard and taking care of loved ones can be messy. Enter Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie about the ultimate no-fuss girlfriend: a witty, adoring computer operating system blessed with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Her is the biggest campaign against childbearing since 1997’s Gattaca. We all have issues with our parents — but between 533 happy endings and the positioning of an escaped convict as the ideal man, we should caution against looking for answers in the movies. If you get confused, ask your father. *

Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Eclectic 2013 Countdown

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16. Oldboy (Spike Lee, US) and Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong) Two films from two of the hardest-working filmmakers in the biz. Though close to an hour and 20 minutes were butchered from Lee’s reimagining of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, it still offered an audacious look at entitlement in America. And To delivered yet another taut gangsters vs. cops drama that ranks up there with The Mission (1999) and PTU (2003).

15. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US) and Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) The best psychedelic mindfucks of 2013.

14. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark) and Walker and Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan) Both filmmakers embody the importance of taking one’s time to do it right. And whoever said transcendental cinema is just for the Dardenne brothers?

13. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) and Mud (Jeff Nichols, US) Masterful, and medicine for my daddy issues.

12. Bastards (Claire Denis, France/Germany) and Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Jonas Mekas should be proud … Baudelairean cinema is alive and well. And I can’t get the faces of actors Vincent Lindon and Lee Eun-woo out of my head.

11. The Dirties (Matt Johnson, Canada) and Magic Magic (Sebastián Silva, Chile/US) I’m not sure which was nastier: Johnson’s bravado, Dawson’s Creek-meets-Man Bites Dog debut, or Michael Cera’s treatment of a losing-her-marbles Juno Temple in Silva’s Chilean tale.

10. Beijing Flickers (Zhang Yuan, China) and A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) “Sixth Generation” Chinese cinema is vibrantly alive and well. Do yourself a favor and get wrapped up in these explosive films.

9. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US) and Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US) As John Waters says, “Woody Allen makes straight relationships seem interesting.” Not only should both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins get Oscar nods for Blue Jasmine, but Andrew Dice Clay should actually win. Add to that Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater’s most profound film of their trilogy — I can’t wait for the next three.

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK) and Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan/Taiwan/UK/Germany) Both of these cult directors recognize that the loss of personal relationships are as serious as the end of the world. Multiple viewings are recommended.

7. Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, India) and The Canyons (Paul Schrader, US) Exploitation cinema that practices what it preaches seems to always be misunderstood or disrespected upon its initial release. The fact that India even allowed Miss Lovely to be made is as exciting as Paul Schrader’s decision to cast troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan.

6. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Nepal/US) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, France/UK/US) Be patient and rewards will come in these minimalist, deeply moving journeys.

5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, US) Don’t stop with Korine’s ode to the ultimate American neon fever dream. I dare you to experience Bay’s pumped-up screwball satire. Added bonus: Dwayne Johnson turns in one of the funniest performances of the year.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US), plus Aningaaq (Jonás Cuarón, US) Mainstream cinema got it right this year and these Oscar-baiting films deserve more credit than just some awards. They might be changing a whole generation. If you haven’t watched the younger Cuarón’s Greenland-set Gravity companion short, go online ASAP. It’s as good as any feature this year.

3. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy: Love, Faith, and Hope (Austria/France/Germany) Hands down, the best political-art-porn trilogy of the decade. I can’t choose which one is my favorite.

2. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Diaz’s four-hour masterpiece about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

1. The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, US) I will say it, and I will say it loudly: The Lone Ranger is the most subversive Hollywood film since Starship Troopers (1997). This uncompromising, revisionist Western is surprisingly ruthless with its all-American violence, and is highlighted by offbeat slapstick performances (by both Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer) and action scenes that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. I’ve watched it four times, and it’s only gotten better with each viewing.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks writes film festival reviews for the SF Bay Guardian, curates Midnites for Maniacs at the Castro and Roxie, and is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

 

YEAR IN FILM: SAM STANDER’S TOP 13

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, US/France)

2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

3. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, US)

4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, US)

5. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

6. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

7. The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, US)

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK)

9. [tie] Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, US) and You’re Next (Adam Wingard, US)

10. [tie] The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan) and Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

11. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Watch out!

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cheryl@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM What the hell am I watching? I muttered that phrase many times in 2013, with interpretations ranging all over the cinematic map. There was a sense of amazed “How did they do that?” during Gravity; feelings of intrigued unease during Upstream Color and The Act of Killing; and a genuine feeling of befuddlement as a book I thoroughly enjoyed, World War Z, was transformed into a puddle of CG mud with Brad Pitt bobbing at its center.

It was a year full of memorable images, for better and worse. I won’t soon forget The Counselor‘s car-fucking sequence; The Conjuring‘s creepy Annabelle doll; or the sight of Jonah Hill becoming possessed by a demon in This is the End (or by a handful of well-aged Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street). On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to remember anything that happened in the number one movie of the year, Iron Man 3.

That’s not Tony Stark’s fault. Mega-budget films like Iron Man 3 make high box-office numbers their top priority. To sell a lot of tickets, you have to appeal to as many different kinds of filmgoers as possible; the avoidance of sharp edges and left-field insanity is to be expected. But there’s hope to be found in films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the sixth-biggest moneymaker of the year, which married crowd-pleasing suspense and technical beauty (that 3D!) to a surprisingly stark, profound story about loneliness and loss.

Gravity was among many films this year that lingered on themes of fear, abandonment, and forced self-reliance. The other big example: J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, which sets a solo sailor — Robert Redford, one of few movie stars with as much built-in audience goodwill as Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock — adrift on a perilously leaky vessel. Unlike Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, Redford’s unnamed salty dog isn’t gasping for oxygen (yet …), and he’s scrambling to survive sudden storms instead of onslaughts of space junk. But Redford’s plight might actually be the tougher one. All is Lost offers neither exposition nor any room for existential reflection. (Hell, it barely offers any dialogue; no wacky Mardi Gras stories from George Clooney here.) We have no idea who Redford’s character is, or why he’s puttering around alone on the Indian Ocean. Compared to Ryan, he remains calm as each new calamity presents itself. But both characters — she, a rookie in space; he, a seemingly experienced seaman — scramble to read instruction manuals when they find gizmos that might help them survive, even for just a few more moments.

The stakes are less dire for the lonely protagonists of Spike Jonze’s Her and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. And you kinda get the sense that both Her‘s Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Inside‘s Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) have only themselves to blame for their ennui. But unlike Llewyn, who bumbles his way through a 1960s New York folk scene riddled with mistakes he’s only recently begun to regret, mid-21st century Los Angeleno Theodore finds a coping strategy that brings him joy. Even when the “relationship” he’s cultivated with his computer operating system hits the expected snags, Jonze sneaks a little bit of optimism in there. By the film’s end, Theodore’s intimate brush with technology has guided him toward some very human soul-searching — again, unlike Llewyn, whose story finishes exactly where it began.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish — a documentary investigating the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer at the jaws of a male orca named Tilikum — also brought a tale of isolation to the forefront. It’s capped with a lingering shot of the giant animal hovering, motionless, in a solitary-confinement tank. Home sweet home. Thoughtful and provocative, Blackfish avoids sensationalism, adding interviews with killer-whale experts to its slate of ex-SeaWorld employee talking heads. It’s not simply an exposé of a specific attack, though it does contain footage shot just before the Tilikum incident. It’s an indictment of an amusement-park industry that puts profits above the safety of its employees, and tries mightily to turn intelligent, unpredictable animals into goofy attractions.

And greed, as it happens, was another big theme for 2013. It’s a topic that lends itself to high-energy tales of ill-gotten gains and dramatic tumbles, with stakes as meaningless as the designer handbags snatched from Paris Hilton’s closet by Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring bandits — or as huge as the political careers toppled by the antics of American Hustle‘s con artists and slippery FBI agents. Nowhere was this familiar story arc so gleefully explored than in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which — like Bling and Hustle — was based on a true story. Even better, its tale of 1990s stock-market swindling is based on the book written by the fiend who lived it (Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and shot by Martin Scorsese with top-of-his-game panache.

In a parallel universe, someone might make a film casting Belfort as the villain. Here, he’s the obnoxious, thieving, narcissistic, witty, scheming, drug-gobbling douchebag you hate to love. What the hell am I watching? The birth of an antihero, 2013-style. *

 

CHERYL EDDY’S TOP 10

1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

3. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

4. American Hustle (David O. Russell, US)

5. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, US)

6. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/US)

7. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

8. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

9. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US)

10. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

 

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, US); Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France/Belgium/Spain); Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong); Nebraska (Alexander Payne, US); The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US)

 

FAVORITE MOMENTS

 

Leonardo DiCaprio vs. the stairs, The Wolf of Wall Street

“Let’s boo-boo.” — The World’s End

Mastodon’s “cameo” in Monsters University

Louis C.K.’s ice-fishing story, American Hustle

Judi Dench explains the plot of Big Momma’s House to Steve Coogan, Philomena

“I wanna rob!” — Emma Watson, The Bling Ring

Sun Honglei’s transformation into “Haha,” Drug War

Jem Cohen’s musings on Bruegel, Museum Hours

“Everytime” musical number, Spring Breakers

John Goodman’s “Santería” speech, Inside Llewyn Davis John C. Reilly’s cameo, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Bully pulpit

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arts@sfbg.com 

YEAR IN FILM While teen bullying might be quite topical, it’s far from being a new issue, as evidenced by Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie. Set in the hormone-jittery corridors of a suburban high school, the 1974 tome details an outsider’s humiliating entrance into womanhood, as well as the ruthless revenge she enacts on her cruel classmates after she discovers she has the power to move objects with her mind.

Dubbed “The Black Prom” by the book, the disastrous dance at which Carrie White is humiliated for the last time takes on the ominous tenor of a terrorist attack or a wholesale massacre — a fictional foreshadowing of Columbine-scale carnage. While the fact that Carrie has been bullied is positioned as the motive for her rampage, her actions suggest far more than just a wounded lashing-out or a classic revenge fantasy. Although the phrase wasn’t yet common, what Carrie most resembles is a weapon of mass destruction, not a misunderstood misfit. What makes Carrie a horror story is the inhuman scale of her murderous frenzy.

The year 2013 marked a revival for the enigma that is Carrie White, with a remake of the 1976 Brian De Palma movie (as well as, incidentally, the 1988 musical). Director Kimberly Peirce had the harder struggle for relevance, as the original film is considered one of the best horror films ever made, garnering Oscar nominations, American Film Institute nods, and a generation of moviegoers who will never forget jumping in their seats at its oft-imitated, last-act “gotcha” scare.

In Peirce’s fitful homage, the dreamy haze of De Palma’s slo-mo sequences is replaced by a glut of clunky CGI shots that shred the screen. Stepping into the role made iconic by Sissy Spacek, the decidedly non-frumpy Chloë Grace Moretz unleashes her telekinetic talent as a sort of wizardry — striking Merlin the Magician poses with outstretched hands. It borders on irritating. And the mean-girl posse’s reliance on their camera phones and YouTube channels stands to date Peirce’s movie for future generations, just as surely as the hairstyles in De Palma’s date his.

Speaking of which, the De Palma movie admittedly has a few eye-rolling moments of its own. It’s so comfortably bound to the conventions of the seventies that trigger-tempered gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) both chain smokes and wears raccoon-thick eyeliner to class, and teen heartthrob Tommy Ross (William Katt) sports a mane of ringlets so angelic you’d swear they were spun from pure disco gold. Whenever Carrie uses her burgeoning powers, a Psycho-esque violin riff screeches in the background, and John Travolta’s doltish bad boy barely appears capable of tying his own shoelaces, let alone engineering his patented blood-bucket humiliation device.

But what makes the story of Carrie so horrifying is precisely that which places her beyond reconstruction. What neither De Palma nor Peirce can quite manage is turning Carrie into a righteous anti-hero. The more they try to create empathy for their tortured protagonist, the more cartoonish and exaggerated her destructive frenzy appears — a gratuitous tsunami of blood, blaze, and blade. Ultimately what works against turning Carrie into a victim is simply that the force of her firepower is too great. She might not have plotted her vengeance, but she’s fully aware that she’s packing her own kind of heat. From the first moment she deliberately uses it to kill, she is damned.

Carrie‘s overkill also stunts its potential as a darkly comedic revenge fantasy à la Heathers (1988), since Carrie, like so many real-life teen shooters, winds up dead herself. Only one of her repentant classmates tries to reach out before the inevitable happens. It’s this scene that most stymies both De Palma and Peirce, since King’s quiet dénouement is decidedly uncinematic — yet it’s a powerful one, an exchange of final words and psychic impressions as Carrie’s life ebbs out of her beside the wrecked remains of the roadhouse she was presumably conceived in. Here, at last, is the moment of self-awareness — and yes, regret — that we need in order to recognize Carrie White as another casualty of her own paranormal capabilities. And until someone figures out a way to film it, we’ll never quite be able to believe it on the big screen. *

 

TEN SELF-CURATED DOUBLE FEATURES (OR, IN PRAISE OF TWO-DOLLAR WEDNESDAY AT LOST WEEKEND VIDEO)

 

Art world confidential Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2010) and Pina (2011)

Feeling a little peckish Grizzly Man (2005) and Ravenous (1999)

Finding love in all the wrong places Lolita (1962) and The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (2003)

Traveling blues Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) and Genghis Blues (1999)

Streets of San Francisco The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Outsider music The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) and American Hardcore (2006)

Entering the zone Stalker (1979) and Sans Soleil (1983)

Morbid fascinations Colma: The Musical (2006) and The Bridge (2006)

Never mind the remakes Let the Right One In (2008) and Oldboy (2003)

My favorite movie mash-up ever Freaks (1932) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Spiking the box office

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arts@sfbg.com 

YEAR IN FILM It’s tough to remember much of the ’90s — what with the air horns and kindercore, flannel and Flavor Flav — but I seem to recall Spike Lee giving the orders that seemed to finally, fully come to pass in 2013: “Make black film.”

Irony of ironies, when it seemed like so many black filmmakers were following through and doing just that — telling their communities’ stories, visualizing their own histories, and fearlessly unlocking troubling and painful key themes — Lee sidled away from Red Hook Summer, last year’s murky return to the fabled Brooklyn stomping grounds of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, and seemed to move toward a fallback position as actioner-for-hire with his redo of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, as if to prove that, testify, he can crush skulls just like his old Amerindie-boys-club rival Quentin Tarantino.

Yet isn’t Lee’s Oldboy a “black film” concerning unjust incarceration or bondage, as much as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Hunger are? Perhaps. The connections were in place, if you cared to look: the stasis of 12 Year‘s near-still opening shot, as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other slaves facing the audience, waiting and listening to a white foreman’s directions, has its corollary in the multiple shots in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, of Forest Whitaker’s butler Cecil Gaines, face frozen. He’s the veritable “invisible man,” instructed to disappear into the background at White House dinners and forever listening for direction. And waiting — as if wondering when the moviemaking establishment will move on from its habit of bestowing statuettes for African American portraits in servitude, à la The Help (2011) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

It’s been a long time coming — much like a certain African American president that butler Gaines had waited a lifetime to meet. Five years into that presidency, the man who tried to “do the right thing” has, intentionally or not, changed the conversation on black representation on screens both big and small. The country’s ready to look at its past and break down the codes, whether they concern slavery, birthers’ loaded allegations about Obama’s “un-American-ness,” Paula Deen’s alleged workplace racism, or Julianne Hough’s wrongheaded Halloween costume — a blackface tribute to “Orange is the New Black” character Crazy Eyes.

This year’s contenders looked to not only historical role models like Jackie Robinson in 42 and Nelson Mandela in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) — in movies made by white filmmakers — but also lighter, aspirational figures such as Tyler Perry (who laid siege on the box office with two efforts, A Madea Christmas and Peeples), as well as the glossy buppies populating popular comedy sequel The Best Man Holiday. Fans blew up the Interwebs with indignation when some misbegotten USA Today editor came up with the headline “Holiday Nearly Beats Thor as Race-Themed Films Soar.”

The Best Man Holiday is bourgie worlds away from Spike Lee favorite Fruitvale Station. (One wonders if the acclaimed indie will serve as a model for Lee’s own Kickstarter-fueled Trayvon Martin project.) Filling out the many shades of his protagonist’s story, and leading with cell phone footage of the fatal shooting, director Ryan Coogler never overplays the naturalistic narrative centered on Oscar Grant, so often writ larger than life all over Oakland in posters and street art. Though it was released at height of Martin-related outrage, the film keeps sensation and sentimentality at bay, apart from a foreboding scene of a stray dog’s sudden death. Like that hound on the run, Michael B. Jordan’s Grant is a driving, hustling, partying study in movement. Fully immersed in a multicultural Bay Area where racism operates in subtler and more complex ways than ever before, he, like any other restless rider, is just trying to get home.

Whitaker threw his weight behind Fruitvale Station as a producer — but his Gaines and The Butler seem wildly different on their stiff, sad surfaces. So much is simmering within Whitaker’s stocky form, his steadfast servant with access to power that he’s forbidden to use, and those blank looks. “We got two faces: ours and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now to get up in the world, we have to make them feel non-threatened,” mentor Maynard (Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad) offers. Surrounded by Daniels players like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, Gaines has one leg in a horrifying sharecropper past and another in upwardly mobile mid-century America, which filmmaker Daniels emphasizes by juxtaposing lynched black men with the stars and stripes at The Butler’s start.

The director goes on to unfurl his showiest stylistic flourishes in a series of jump cuts aimed at the spectacle of hypocrisy perpetually unfolding in the White House, as a table is carefully laid for a excruciating formal state dinner, and the Freedom Riders — Gaines’ son among them — are humiliated while staging a stoic sit-in at a Southern lunch counter. Passive resistance, in all its many forms, is the locus of both tragedy and heroism in The Butler.

Nature, with its dripping moss, strange sunsets, and even Biblical pestilence, provides brief snatches of beauty in 12 Years a Slave, as McQueen foregrounds the mechanistic business of slavery in the tools used for cutting cane, the wheels of a river boat. Free-born violinist Northup is beaten into a kind of tool after he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. His body, nude and exposed to traffickers and buyers, is transformed into a commodity that doesn’t belong to him. His talents are also forced into new uses, as when he fiddles frantically while a mother is torn from her children in a horror-show of a salesroom floor — and later, during a torturous, late-night dance staged by Michael Fassbender’s damaged, sadistic slave owner. The effect of seeing familiar white actors (like Fassbender, and the stars who play The Butler’s various commanders in chief) reel by in a parade of status quo perpetrators, not saviors. In both 12 Years and The Butler, it’s disorienting — as if everyone in Hollywood is also aching to “make black film.”

12 years a slave

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave

Bridging McQueen’s explorations of physical and psychological abjection, Hans Zimmer’s slow-burning, string-laden score picks up where it left off in McQueen’s 2011 Shame, about Fassbender’s sex addict enchained to his confused desires. In terms of desire, it’s all too clear where Ejiofor’s Northup stands (“I don’t want to survive — I want to live!” he declares), and to his credit, McQueen makes his nightmarish 172-year-old descent all too relevant, especially at a time when the Obama administration addresses the persistent crime of human trafficking. It’s just a small leap of imagination to think of one’s story, name, and legal status blotted out and turned around by force and a gnawing “you’re nothing but a Georgia runaway” counter-narrative, reminding the viewer that no one is truly free when others are enslaved. *

 

KIMBERLY CHUN’S US-DOMINATED 10 FOR ’13 

 

 (in alphabetical order)

Best second time around: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

Luxe clucks: The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan)

Best off-base SF-by-way-of-Jersey: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

Finest funny-sad threesome: Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, US)

Bay pride: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)

Best flouting of the laws of physics: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

Best use of entire songs: Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, US/France)

Best tortured threesome: The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France/Italy)

Inspired grills and thrills: Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) Rapturous apocalypse: This Is the End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, US)

This stuff’ll kill ya

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Clad only in a dingy T-shirt and tighty-whities, with an overgrown beard and a hollow look of defeat in his eyes, shut-in Ian (Adrian DiGiovanni) spends his days channel-surfing and plotting ways to commit suicide. When his beloved vintage TV (“His name was Kent,” he tells the camera, in the first of many direct addresses) fizzles, smokes, and goes dark, he finally takes action.

But after he’s lurched off the couch and dumped enough household chemicals into his bathtub to kill several hundred depressed agoraphobics, he falls and hits his head. When he wakes up some time later, groggy and bleeding from the mouth, he realizes his grimy bathroom has a new inhabitant: a talking pile of mold that immediately starts spouting Tony Robbins-like encouragement at our sad-sack hero.

A lot happens in the opening act of first-time feature director Don Thacker’s Motivational Growth. Delightfully, and sometimes gruesomely, the rest of the film keeps pace, even though we never leave Ian’s apartment. Unwelcome visitors (a wacked-out TV repairman; a snarky delivery girl; Ian’s angry landlord) and a series of surreal hallucinations, in which Ian imagines he’s appearing in the shows he used to watch on Kent’s screen (the best one: an alien buddy-cop drama that looks straight outta Troma), are troubling — though the pretty neighbor he glimpses through his apartment peephole offers brief moments of relief.

But Ian’s main focus, of course, is Motivational Growth‘s title character (voiced with purring bravado by the great Jeffrey Combs). The mold — it insists on referring to itself in the third person — looks like a Krofft Superstar Hour prop that fell into a sewage tank; it has barely-discernable features beyond an expressive mouth that never stops talking (and “when the mold talks, you listen,” it says, sternly). Though the mold encourages Ian — who hasn’t left his apartment in over a year, to tidy up and set a course for “Successville” — there’s also something undeniably sinister about Ian’s increasingly bossy new buddy.

With its pleasingly retro vibe, including a bleep-blorp video game-y soundtrack, Motivational Growth is quirky without getting in your face about it — though it may inspire you to rush home and scrub every inch of your bathroom. It’s a high point in the 10th annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, produced by SF IndieFest and stuffed tighter than a turducken with indie horror, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks.

The fest offers a sprinkling of classics (for all you Room 237 obsessives out there, it features screenings of both 1980’s The Shining and projection-booth stunt “The Shining Forwards and Backwards” — talk about a labyrinth). But mostly, it’s a showcase of new films that might be having their only local theatrical screenings, including several intriguing imports.

Billed as the Philippines’ first-ever indie zombie movie, T.A. Aderto’s The Grave Bandits has a few major flaws, including an overload of bodily-function jokes and some of the worst mad-scientist acting ever captured on film. But its young leads — particularly Marti Sandino San Juan as the slingshot-wielding Peewee — and some gushing gore effects mitigate most of The Grave Bandits‘ more unfortunate elements.

The premise: Two scrappy ragamuffins (Peewee and his slightly older buddy, played by Ronald Pacifico) make their living robbing corpses, a survival strategy that makes them unpopular enough to be chased by angry mobs. They’re able to steal a small boat and escape to one of the country’s tiny islands — unluckily, it happens to be the same place a gang of pirates acted the wrong way around a giant gemstone tainted by “an alien virus, dormant for over 100 years.” Ergo, a new angry mob to evade — one made up of flesh-ripping zombies.

Elsewhere among the international selections is French Canadian filmmaker Renaud Gauthier’s Discopath. The writer-director is clearly a fan of cult-horror nasties — 1980’s Maniac and 1979’s Don’t Go in the House, and to a lesser extent 1977’s Suspiria, seem to have influenced this stylish, self-assured creepfest. After witnessing a terrible tragedy as a child, shy loner Duane (Jeremie Earp) can’t stand music, particularly that newfangled genre called disco. For whatever reason, he agrees to go to a dance club with a girl he’s just met — with disastrously bloody results. Fast-forward a few years, and he’s fled New York City for Montreal. Living under a fake name, he’s working as a handyman at a Catholic girl’s school and wearing hearing aids that mute out the dreaded sound of music (insert your own “Disco sucks!” joke here).

But once a psychopath, always a psychopath, and heads soon start rolling (and spinning on turntables, in fact). If Discopath‘s plot is familiar to the point of homage, its synth-scored commitment to detail reaches exceptional heights: period-perfect clothes, cars, tabloid newspapers, décor (including a giant remote control that Motivational Growth‘s Ian would covet), and carefully-calibrated amounts of garbage scattered on NYC’s Me Decade sidewalks. *

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE HEAD FILM FESTIVAL

Nov 29-Dec 12, $12

Balboa Theater, 3630 Balboa, SF

New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF

www.sfindie.com

 

Camp classic

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Daniel Farrands’ 400-minute documentary Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th received coverage last month in an unlikely outlet: the New York Times. “A Seven-Hour Documentary About a Horror Franchise? The Director Explains,” read the skeptical headline.

“A seven-hour documentary about a horror franchise?” I said. “Gotta get my mitts on that!”

Seven and some odd hours later, I was on the phone with the Los Angeles-based Daniel Farrands for my own interview with the Crystal Lake Memories director. Farrands, whose previous docs include 2010’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and 2009’s His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th, was as stoked about the Times piece as you’d expect.

“I was really honored and sort of surprised that they were interested,” he says. “It’s a coup for our little slasher show that could.”

Any student of the Friday the 13th series can understand Crystal Lake Memories‘ running time. It covers the entire hockey-masked enchilada: 10 Friday films, late-1980s TV curio Friday the 13th: The Series, 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, and the 2009 Friday remake. Frankly, it’s surprising Farrands was able to cram the whole thing into 400 minutes.

“It’s amazing to me that we got it down to that length,” he agrees. “We had hundreds of hours of interviews that we had to cut. And there are always those stories you wish you could have told, but for some reason they didn’t really work within the narrative as it’s developing.” (To that end, he adds, true diehards who early-ordered the straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray title through its official website — www.crystallakememories.net — got an additional disc containing four more hours of bonus material. You can still buy the film there, but not the bonus disc.)

It goes without saying that you should probably view the Friday series before checking out the doc. Why attempt the epic experience of watching Crystal Lake Memories if you’re not already a confirmed Jason Voorhees freak?

The Friday the 13th franchise has been around since 1980 and has amassed a huge and loyal fan following,” Farrands says. “[Crystal Lake Memories] is unabashedly intended for them. That being said, we really wanted it to be something that would be of interest even to the non-horror crowd — if you’re into cinema, and [interested in] what it takes to make a low-budget film. This film and our four-hour retrospective on the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Never Sleep Again, are kind of film-school courses in the form of horror documentaries. There’s so much interesting stuff in there in terms of being in the [low-budget filmmaking] trenches; our edict was to tell the real stories about making these kinds of films.”

Crystal Lake Memories tracks down some 160 cast and crew members spanning the Friday series (Betsy Palmer, the veteran actor who played Mrs. Voorhees in the original film, grins as she remembers reading the script and thinking “What a piece of junk!”). Many of the thespian interviewees are still unknowns, but several cult favorites — including special effects makeup pioneer Tom Savini, series creator Sean S. Cunningham, and prolific producer Frank Mancuso Jr. (Farrands’ longtime mentor) — stop by to share memories. Corey Feldman, who appeared in 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter during the height of his child-star days, narrates the film.

One notable omission: Kevin Bacon, whose gruesome fate in the first Friday came years before he broke out in 1984’s Footloose.

“Recently, he appeared on the Tonight Show and he talked all about Friday the 13th,” Farrands says. “So he’s not ashamed of it, necessarily. But unfortunately, while we were conducting our interviews, we couldn’t make it work with his schedule. But we tried, and they tried! I think people have this misunderstanding that some of these bigger stars are embarrassed by it, and that’s just not true. I mean, Johnny Depp wasn’t ashamed that he was in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).”

Farrands’ own résumé is filled with horror-related credits. Just a smattering: he wrote the screenplay for 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers; directed multiple History’s Mysteries episodes on the Amityville phenomenon; and is developing a TV show set “in the universe of Jason Voorhees” called Crystal Lake Chronicles. His earlier Friday doc, His Name Was Jason, was a 90-minute work that “focused on Jason Voorhees as a pop-culture icon,” he says.

For Crystal Lake Memories, “we wanted to sequentially chronicle the making of the entire series.” It does make use of some Jason footage, particularly outtakes from interviews conducted for that film. But, “we did 60-some new interviews for this film that were not in Jason.

Fresh faces include Dana Kimmell, star of 1982’s Friday the 13th Part III, and Jennifer Cooke, star of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. “[Cooke] has literally never spoken of her experience with the film other than, I think, one article back in 1986 when the film was made. It took a lot of convincing to get her to go on camera. But she was very nice and gave us a terrific, in-depth interview.”

As you might suspect, the actors’ recollections tend to revolve around their death scenes — achieved, in the pre-CG era, via the wizardry of artists like Savini, who made Friday‘s signature gore as outrageous as possible.

“The Friday the 13th violence was very in-your-face. The violence in Halloween (1978) was kind of subdued, and suggested, more like Psycho (1960). Friday the 13th took it to the next level. People walked out, like, ‘How did they do that?’ The audaciousness of what they pulled off, and the fact that the film was released by a major studio and put on 1,600 screens at the time — it just hadn’t been done. So I think that’s why Friday the 13th was kind of a watershed film.”