Bees, detectives, abortions, and more more bees: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught three films, all narrative features, Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Two of them were by woman directors; that is, but shouldn’t be, unusual. Two of them were about beekeepers. which really is unusual.

B+ Mr. Holmes
image
What a life! This weekend, I got to see the newest Sherlock Holmes feature film—which won’t get into theaters until summer. Then, in a few weeks, I get to see the first Sherlock Holmes feature film, which no paying audience has seen for almost 100 years.

The screening provided some excitement that wasn’t intended. About half an hour in, the movie was interrupted by a fire alarm. Everyone had to evacuate the Kabuki and wait outside until the fire department declared that the popcorn was done (or something of that nature). I think we lost about half an hour .

Now on with the movie:

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son, who bonds with Holmes–the only man in his life. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case—to correct Watson’s exaggerations—before senility sinks too deep. For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

After the film, we had Q&A with producer Anne Carey and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who spent 10 years getting this film off the ground. That’s considerably longer than director Bill Condon’s involvement. Some highlights:

  • What attracted them to the novel: “It provided a great part [for an actor], and a great setting. And the theme: Don’t wait too long before you go after what’s in your heart.”
  • On writing screenplays: “You can be a bit dry in how you write a scene because you know that the director and actors will add color.”
  • “The trick is to never push the audience to like the characters. Let it just happen.”

Mr. Holmes will play once more during the festival, Wednesday, May 5, at 2:00, also at the Kabuki. Miramax will release the film in theaters this summer.

B Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere
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This Vietnamese drama succeeds in producing an atmosphere, and makes us care about the main character. But her repeated poor choices can wear you down as you watch. The film follows the misfortunes of a young, immature, broke, single, pregnant college student who can’t seem to get around to having the abortion she says she wants. Her even less mature boyfriend has a good job, but he’s a gambling addict (cock fighting) and is totally unreliable. Her transgender roommate appears to be her only true friend.

If nothing else, the film is a surprising look at Vietnam today. Hanoi looks like a capitalist city. And I didn’t think that the government would allow a film about poverty, sex, and prostitution.

This is the first film I’ve seen at this year’s festival that didn’t have filmmaker Q&A.

A- The Wonders
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Mexican magical realism clearly influenced this Italian comic drama about a struggling family of farmers and beekeepers. Nothing happens that is physically impossible, but writer/director Alice Rohrwacher creates an atmosphere where you feel that anything can happen. Money is tight for this family, but the real problem comes from the short-tempered father, constantly screaming and rejecting anyone else’s idea. One gets the impression that he moved to the country to raise his family in the the peace and quiet of the simple life, and he’s NOT GOING TO LET ANYTHING GET IN THE WAY, DAMMIT!!!!

But it’s Maria Alexandra Lungu as the eldest daughter who really brings the magic. She’s so attuned to the bees that she lets them crawl on her face and even into her mouth.

There’s a television contest  involved, as well. And a boy working on parole.

You’ve got two other chances to see The Wonders. It plays at 1:00 Sunday afternoon at the  Kabuki (rush seats only) and Wednesday, 6:30, at the Pacific Film Archive.

SFIFF Friday: Great trains, bad entertainment

I caught two films at the Kabuki Friday. Here’s what I saw:

D+ Entertainment
Being weird isn’t always enough. A deeply depressed, horrifically inept stand-up comic (Gregg Turkington) travels through small towns in the desert, flopping over and over again. Between lousy material, a complete lack of taste, horrific delivery, and utter contempt for his audience, he’s painful to watch. When he isn’t performing, ihe’s depressed and unable to connect with anyone. There are a couple of good scenes and no real story. For the most part, it’s just extremely unpleasant with nothing to say.

I didn’t stay for the Q&A.

Just in case you’re feeling masochistic, Entertainment will screen again tonight (Saturday) at 9:45, and Monday at 9:30. Both screenings are at the Kabuki. 

A- The Iron Ministry
Life on a Chinese railroad. This narration-free documentary catches life on a long train trip in China. (From where to where? It doesn’t say.) People find comfort in close quarters. They tell funny stories. They drink and flirt. They buy food from a cart. And they talk about religion, ethnicity, and politics. The staff serve dinner in the dining car, object to being filmed, sweep the floor, and in one case agree to talk to the filmmaker (American J.P. Sniadecki). A handful of shots go on too long, but altogether it’s an amazing slice of life in a foreign country, set on one of the most social–and cinematic–forms of transpartition. 

After the film, Sniadecki stepped up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • This was the sixth film he made in China, a country he fell in love with from books when growing up. “My parents were kind of hippies. I skipped school a lot but I road a lot of trains.”
  • On the idea for this film: “I didn’t choose it. It kind of chose me. I was filming my life and I started to film on the trains. I was hanging out with a friend and she said I should make a film of this. Most of the trains were ones that i had to take anyway.”
  • “When you see the movie, a world opens up. When I see it, I see three years of my life cut down to 83 minutes.”

The Iron Ministry screens again today (Saturday) at the Pacific Film Archive, and May 4, 4:00 at the Kabuki.

Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs, and opening night for the San Francisco International Film Festival

The San Francisco International Film Festival opened last night with a mercifully short introduction, an excellent film, and a short but interesting Q&A.

But the night started off on the wrong foot. When we entered the Castro, we found that almost all of the seats were "Reserved." Only the front three and back five rows were available to people without proper status..

This didn’t bother me too much; the third row is fine for me. But the man sitting next to me was justifiably angry. He had paid $1400 for a CineVisa pass, he came early to get a good seat, and he was shunted to a row that was too close for him.

Film festival opening nights are notorious for getting off to a late start, but this one was reasonably prompt. The show was scheduled to start at 7:00, and at 7:10, the organist broke into "San Francisco." (Night shows at the Castro usually begin with an organ concert, always ending with "San Francisco.") That was followed by this year’s trailer, which was okay, except that I know I’ll be sick of it soon.

Then came the talks–all mercifully short. First up, Executive Director Noah Cowan, then  Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. And then the director of the night’s film, Alex Gibney.

The movie started at 7:24. Not bad.

The film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will get a theatrical release in September, so I’m not allowed to write a lot about it now. So I’ll just write this:

A Director Alex Gibney starts this multifaceted documentary with a difficult question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply his death? Jobs was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He made technology friendly for the average person, and significantly changed the world. But he was also a jerk that cheated friends, let his daughter grow up on welfare while he became incredibly wealthy, and parked his sports car in handicap spaces.  Gibney offers us an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a man utterly lacking in empathy.

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The movie was followed by a short Q&A with Gibney, with Rosen asking the first few questions, then moderating questions from the audience. A few highlights:

  • On choosing the subjects for this and other films: "I don’t know. This was something that was just rattling around in my head. I didn’t know where this journey was going to take me."
  • Apple’s response to a request to cooperate with the filmmakers: "They said they didn’t have the resources to help me with this film."
  • On some of his choices for film subjects: "I’m interested in power. Maybe I’m attuned to powerful people who abuse their power."
  • On Bill Gates: "Jobs had a very interesting relationship with Bill. Someone should make a movie about that."
  • Job’s "great talent was his ability to introduce us and create a relationship between us and computers."
  • On his skill as an interviewer: "I’m more like Columbo than Sherlock Holmes. You have to have empathy for the person you’re interviewing, and let them tell the story as they want it."
  • On the large number of films he’s put out recently: "I’m making up for lost time. I’ve made some films that were successful [which results in easier funding]. Also, if you surround yourself with really talented people it’s amazing how efficient you become."

There was a party after the show, but I didn’t attend. I needed my sleep.

What’s Screening: April 24 – 30

The big one (well, one of the big two), the San Francisco International Film Festival,  runs through this week and beyond. My festival listings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

But even if you don’t go to the festival, you can still catch some good movies.

B+ In the Footsteps of Godzilla, Roxie, Sunday, 3:30. The B+ goes to the original, image1954, Japanese language Godzilla. Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, it presents the emotions of mass terror more vividly than Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. After the screening, the movie will play again, this time with live commentary by Japanese-monster expert Armand Vaquer.

A Design for Living, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Impeccable credentials occasionally pay off. Design for Living is every bit as good as you’d expect from Ernstimage Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play. Of course, it also helps to have a cast headed by Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins as a sort-of romantic threesome, and Edward Everett Horton as a disapproving bluenose. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer. On a double bill with Becky Sharp, remembered primarily as the first feature shot entirely in Three-Strip Technicolor;. I saw it once maybe 30 years ago and found it reasonably entertaining.

A Tootsie, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Gender roles turn upside-down in what is easily the second best Hollywood comedy about straight men in drag image(the best, of course, is Some Like It Hot). Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who no one wants to hire. So he disguises himself as a woman, gets a job on a soap opera, and becomes a sensation. Things get complicated when he falls for one of his co-stars (Jessica Lange), who likes him as a friend but doesn’t know he’s a man. The very funny screenplay by Larry Gelbart (who also created the character of Klinger on TV’s M*A*S*H) is played mostly straight, although Teri Garr and Bill Murray show off their exceptional comic timing. .

A- Gay-themed thrillers with titles that go together beautifully double bill: Bound & Rope, Castro, Wednesday. The A- goes to Bound, the Wachowski brothers’ first and best movie. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon become lovers, then set out to steal a Ropefortune from the mob. A very sexy, violent, and suspenseful thriller which adds new meaning to the phrase "laundering money."  In Alfred Hitchcock’s most frustrating film, a presumably gay couple murder a man for kicks, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Hitchcock made Rope in eight moving camera shots; an interesting experiment that robbed him of the ability to edit. Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock. I give it a B.

B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. Tim Burton’s first feature peeweesbigadvenrevels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission.

A+ Rear Window, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment imageand a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)

A- Ex Machina, California (Berkeley), opens Friday. This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the imageTuring test to determine if a "female" robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein,and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, New Parkway, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead lives. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A Dearest, Clay, Saturday, 6:00; Kabuki, Thursday, 6:30.Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, imageand complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

Cinema Visionaries: Alex Gibney, Kabuki, Friday, 4:00. The documentarian whoimage made  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and the festival’s opening file, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will be on hand to discuss his work with California College of the Arts students and anyone who buys a ticket.

A- Best of Enemies, Kabuki, Friday, 9:00; Clay, Sunday, 3:30. In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network imageput the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

B+ The Postman’s White Nights, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00; Clay, Tuesday, 6:15, Kabuki, Wednesday, 3:45. This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a imageplace that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, Kabuki, Friday, 9:30 & Sunday, 9:30. The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As imagesomeone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

Revisiting The Flame and the Arrow

Burt Lancaster, at his most acrobatic, takes on an Errol Flynn role and pulls it off with panache in The Flame and the Arrow, a Robin Hood-like story set in medieval Italy. Like all the best swashbucklers, it’s witty, exciting, beautiful to look at, only slightly suspenseful, totally ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun.

I’m a sucker for swashbucklers, even though I understand why they get so little respect. Unlike other period action genres, such as westerns and samurai films, swashbucklers never grew up. No one ever made a sword and tights movie with the complexity of Red River or Seven Samurai. But the genre’s fun comes from its light touch, the simplicity of obvious good and evil, fights that look more like dance than violence, and witty repartee. In some of the best swashbucklers, not a single good guy dies.

Lancaster became a star, and a top producer, in film noir–a genre about as far from swashbucklers as you can get. Yet his good looks, 500-watt smile, and pre-acting career as an acrobat made him a natural for buckling his swash. Outside of the work of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, few movies show off their star’s athleticism like The Flame and the Arrow. Lancaster climbs poles, jumps down from a tree with a graceful backflip, swings down a drapery, climbs a rope without using his feet, and does every trick of the parallel bar.

And it’s not only Lancaster. Nick Cravat was Lancaster’s acrobatic partner in their youth, and became the star’s personal trainer. Here he plays the sidekick, and the two of them do great physical feats together. In one extended sequence, they find one amazing thing to do after another with a very long pole. One holds it while the other climbs, they walk on it like a tightrope, trip bad guys, and knock out some palace guards.

Cravat wasn’t really an actor, which is probably why his character is mute. But in this over-the-top tale, he’s an enjoyable presence even when both feet are on the ground. His upbeat personality, over-the-top facial expressions, and contempt fo authority gives the impression of a bearded, dark-haired Harpo Marx.

The story borrows a number of tropes from my all-time favorite swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Waldo Salt’s screenplay always finds a variation. For instance, in both movies, the hero escapes an execution by hanging. But the escapes are as different as they can be.

Considering the fact that the film’s star was also the executive producer, it’s astonishing how much of the film’s strength comes from supporting characters. A scene between a minstrel and a tanner about civilization and working with your feet is just charming. But then Norman Lloyd, as the minstrel, steals every scene he’s in

Salt also provided something very surprising for a swashbuckler–a somewhat likeable character who could end up being one of the good guys, or one of the bad ones. By the standards of this type of movie, that’s almost deep.

I saw The Flame and Arrow only once theatrically…probably around 1980. When my son was growing up, I bought him the VHS cassette, and he watched it over and over again. It’s currently streaming in HD on Turner Archive Instant. I don’t know how long it will be there.

San Francisco International Film Festival Preview

Here are five films I’ve previewed for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. I’ve arranged them in order from potential masterpiece to stinker.

Except that there are no stinkers in this batch. As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s acting range, these films run the gamut from A to B. Only in this case, that’s a compliment.

A Dearest
image
Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, and complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

  • Clay, Saturday, April 25, 6:00
  • Kabuki, Thursday, April 30, 6:30

A- Democrats
image  How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running the show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.

A- Best of Enemies
image 
In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:00
  • Clay, Sunday, April 26, 3:30

B+ The Postman’s White Nights
image
This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a place that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
image 
The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As someone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:30
  • Kabuki, Sunday, April 26, 9:30

Note: On April 22, I discovered that I had left screening times off for Democrats. I have just corrected that.

Cerrito Classics going on hiatus

The Cerrito theater is halting its monthly Classics series until September. Why? Here’s the official explanation:

Cerrito Classics are shown by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, under the auspices of Rialto Cinemas, which operates the Cerrito. Rialto operates as a first-run theater, with special showings of filmed productions of London plays, as well as films about famous artists.

Rialto has contracts with major studios, which are able to enforce the number of showings for their current movies. While the plays and art films are exempt from these studio rules, additional programs such as Cerrito Classics are not.

With the summer 2015 blockbuster season approaching, some of the studios are enforcing their contracts, and demanding that they be able to have the maximum number of showings of their new movies. Thus the cancellation of Cerrito Classics for May through August 2015.

Rialto made this step reluctantly, as they have been great supporters of the Cerrito Classics, which are very popular with the community. The Classic for this month, for example, “A Shadow of a Doubt,” played to a sold-out house.

What makes this particularly curious is that, as far as I know, a lot of other first-run theaters are continuing their weekly classics series. This includes the Alameda and the very big CineMark chain, which now shows a classic every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Of course, you can always check here at Bayflicks to see what classics are screening theatrically in the Bay Area.

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