SFIFF: Medicine for Melancholy

A man and woman wake up together, hung over and embarrassed (they don’t even know each others’ names). In the course of 24 hours, they flirt and fight, run errants together, and visit some of the sites of San Francisco. But will they become a couple?

One could describe Medicine for Melancholy as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins make attractive and likable leads, and for the first hour they’re completely worth spending time with.

But writer/director Barry Jenkins seemed to have trouble ending his first feature. Two-thirds of the way through the picture you realize that it’s going nowhere. The problem isn’t helped by a totally irrelevant political discussion by people we haven’t seen before or will see again and a prolonged scene in a nightclub that doesn’t tell us anything new about our protagonists.

The film makes interesting use of color (which, unfortunately, isn’t reproduced in any of the marketing stills). At first, I thought it was in black and white, but someone’s shirt just looked a smidgen too red for that. Most of the picture is shot that way, with only a little color peaking through an extremely desaturated image. It’s a nice effect, although sometimes a distracting one.

You have two more chances to catch Medicine for Melancholy. It’s playing Sunday, May 4, 8:15, at the Pacific Film Archive, and Wednesday, May 7, at 3:30, at the Kabuki.

SFIFF: Errol Morris

Last night, documentary Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War) stepped onstage and received this year’s Persistence of Vision Award. He accepted the award, he talked onstage with Professor B. Ruby Rich , he braved two separate Q&A sessions with the audience, and he screened his new film, Standard Operating Procedure.

And he was funny. “The San Francisco International Film Festival,– he mused as he accepted his award from Executive Director Graham Leggat; “it’s like an airport.– Then he recalled how The Thin Blue Line, which played the SFIFF 20 years ago, turned him into an “employed filmmaker– (it was his third feature).

The jokes continued throughout his talk with Professor Rich. When she asked about the curiosity that drives his work, he corrected her, saying it was desperation. When a cell phone went off and Rich asked audience members to turn them off, Morris told everyone to keep them on. He turned that into a running joke through the evening.

But he also got serious. During the first Q&A session, someone asked him to explain what makes a film a documentary (Morris has received some flack for including staged sequences and re-enactments). “You’re making a movie about the world–¦the pursuit of truth. You don’t pursue truth with a list of rules. You pursue it with whatever’s at hand.”

He explained his invention, the interrotron, which allows interviewer and subject to maintain eye contact while looking directly into the camera. His answer was long and rambling, with stories of putting his head against the lens while shooting his first movie and regrets about not patenting the device. “When you see the film, I don’t want you to pay attention to the film. Think about eye lines.–

Morris also told us that he’s not interested in getting his interview subjects to “confess– to anything. “I’m a Jewish boy from Long Island, not a Catholic priest.–

There were less jokes during the second, post-screening Q&A session. That’s appropriate. Standard Operating Procedure is a very serious documentary about Abu Ghraib prison. It asks what drives a decent human being to do horrible things, and suggests that the people tried in the courts and the media weren’t the worst perpetrators. It’s an excellent film, and I’ll tell you more about it when it gets its regular theatrical release.

Part of that second Q&A session concerned the controversies swirling around the film. One such controversy is the fact that he paid his interview subjects. He talked long about that, explaining that the movie would not have been made if he hadn’t done that, and he sees no reason why these payments would effect what they said.

Overall, an evening well spent.

SFIFF: Ice People

I missed Ice People at the Kabuki Saturday, but I borrowed a DVD from the press library and just watched it. I’m glad I did.

Anne Aghion’s narration-free documentary observes the people living in the most remote place on Earth (at least on dry land), Antarctica. To be precise, the scientists, undergrads, and support staff at the McMurdo research station. Actually, most of the film concerns a team of four living in tents away from the station as they explore a “dry” valley that millions of years ago teamed with life. We get a fair idea of day to day life (in the tents and at the station) and listen to geologists wax enthusiastic about their work. We see the joy of watching the first sunrise in six months (it will be another six before sunset), and the even greater joy at discovering a rock with a leaf imprint. People talk to the camera about how they ended up there, the boredom of never meeting new people, and why layers of rock are like a laundry basket (the trick is to find a receipt).

But I wish Ice People provided more general information. I wanted to know how long the people (support staff and scientists) stay, what sort of training the staff has, and how many people live there. I wanted someone to look at the camera and say “This is how the whole place works.”

There’s one more screening, Wednesday, April 30, 1:15, at the Kabuki.

SFIFF: Sunday at the PFA

I spent Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive, watching the East Bay edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I caught three films, two great, one lousy. Oddly, the two great ones both centered around women who could reasonably be described as sociopaths.

One problem with the PFA: Since food and drink are banned inside, you have only the short, 30-minute intermissions to buy and consume nourishment and/or caffeine. That can be a challenge when you’re watching three movies.

And here’s what I think of what I saw:

Forbidden Lie$
I have mixed feelings about documentaries that recreate scenes with actors, but Anna Broinowski’s doc about author/con-artist Norma Khouri justified them beautifully. None of the events recreated in the film ever actually happened, and when Broinowski shows us the freshly murdered girl, covered in stageblood, sitting up and laughing with her “murderers,” she reminds us not only that it’s just a movie, but that it’s a movie about lies. Khouri became famous when she wrote a memoir about the honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. The trouble is that she grew up in Chicago, her real name is Norma Bagain, and she left the US one step ahead of the law, wanted for defrauding an old lady. Extremely entertaining, with jokes, old film clips, special effects, and rock and roll, Forbidden Lies takes on a journey with, and about, one hell of a con artist. Several times, even late in the picture, a new revelation would have me thinking “Maybe there is some truth behind what she said,” only to discover that no such truth exists.

You can still catch Forbidden Lie$ at the Kabuki on Wednesday, April 30 at 12:45 and Sunday, May 4, at 8:45, and at the Clay on Friday, May 2, at 6:30. There are no plans for subsequent showings.

Latent Argentina
If you printed Latent Argentina’s subtitles on paper, they’d make a decent magazine article. But you could read that article in a third the time it takes to watch the documentary; less if you skip the boring parts. Writer/director Fernando E. Solanas has a point to make about how his beloved Argentina must revitalize it’s once-powerful economy and place its resources into the hands of the people, but he doesn’t offer a compelling way to tell it. An occasional interview subject livens things up, but for the most part the picture just drags, with the narrator telling you about Argentina’s wonderful past and potential, and talking heads pretty much confirming what he said. The standard-def video presentation robs the occasional scenic landscapes of their beauty and power.

If you don’t believe me, you can catch Latent Argentina Monday, April 28 at 4:15 and Wednesday, May 7, at 4:00. Both showings are at the Kabuki. There are no plans for commercial distribution.

Leave Her to Heaven
Gene Tierney’s “woman who loves too much,” in her obsessive desire to be the only person in her husband’s life, reminded me a bit of Norma Khouri/ Norma Bagain from Forbidden Lie$. But this woman’s behavior would make Bagain appear like a saint. This isn’t the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself.

Tierney gets top billing, but the real star of Leave Her to Heaven is Technicolor. Set mostly in scenic locations (New Mexico, rural Maine, and others), the film shows three-strip Technicolor at its best. I often found myself enjoying the color of a chair or Tierney’s eyes, without that enjoyment ever detracting from the story. (On the other hand, I did wonder about that bright red lipstick that never smeared or left her lips, whether she was kissing, swimming, or getting out of bed.) Oddly, the bright Technicolor works well with this particular dark story. Twentieth-Century Fox recently restored the film from a faded and badly-registered color composite negative, and they did a wonderful job.

Unfortunately, I saw the last Leave Her to Heaven screening in the Festival. Unless a local rep house books it for a night or two, your only option is seeing it on DVD.

SFIFF: The Warlords

After spending most of yesterday at the Kabuki, I headed to the Castro to see The Warlords. A big, historical epic staring Jet Li seemed worth crossing town.

It wasn’t. Huge, cumbersome, and melodramatic, The Warlords succeeded primarily in being loud. Set during the Taiping Rebellion, it stars Li as a general who turns a group of bandits into an unbeatable army with the help of two bandit leaders who become his blood brothers. There’s a love triangle, as well. The battle scenes are big, but seldom thrilling and often laughable. Li’s General Pang commits several atrocities, but we’re supposed to forgive him because he cries as he does them. When the movie ended with a quote from earlier, “Dying is easy. Living is harder,” I suppressed the desire to yell out the correct quote: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

The Warlords won’t screen again at the festival, although it might get a regular theatrical release in this country.

SFIFF: Mataharis

I just saw Mataharis–another really good film. This character study of three female private detectives, all working for the same agency (and the same sleazy boss), follows them as their work and private life intertwine and complicate each other.

The best story involves Inés (María Vázquez), the youngest of the three and the only single one, assigned to spy on two factory workers suspected of stealing from their boss. At least that’s what she’s initially told. When she discovers that they’re actually suspected of union activity, she finds herself in a moral dilemma.

The other stories work almost as well. Eva (Najwa Nimri) uses her skills to follow her own husband, thus discovering a secret that, while not really all that horrible, shatters her ability to trust him. And the older and possibly wiser Carmen (Nuria González) helps a client facing double betrayals and begins to doubt her own marriage.

Very much worth seeing, and not scheduled for a regular release after the festival. You can still catch it at Monday at 7:15 and Wednesday at 9:00 at the Kabuki and Friday, at 1:15 at the Clay.

SFIFF: Just Like Home

I’m writing this at the Kabuki, and I’ll be quick.

I just saw a very funny comedy from Denmark called Just Like Home. It follows several people in a small town that’s thrown into confusion from reports of a man running naked through the strees. Director/co-writer Lone Scherfig builds a quiet tone that works up to big laughs and heartfelt (although not particularly deep) human observations. Best in the cast: Ann Eleanora Jørgensen as a refugee from religious fanaticism. She reminded me a bit of Francis McDormand, and could make the audience laugh by drinking a glass of water. Highly recommended.

It screens again on Sunday at 4:00 and Tuesday at 9:15, both screenings at the Kabuki. You will probably never get another chance to see it again.

This Week At the Movies

I posted two articles this week, both about the San Francisco International Film Festival (opening as I type this). The first described films I haven’t seen but would like to, and the second offered microreviews of the films I’ve been able to preview.

Grandma’s Boy (1922), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. In his second feature, made years after he donned those horn-rimmed glasses, Harold Lloyd finally found the shy, scared, but clever and ambitious character to go with them. Harold is too much of a coward to face the bully or win the girl, but a fairy tale lie from his grandmother helps him find the courage that was always inside. This sweet fable about the power of self-confidence avoids excess sentimentality by the simple (but actually quite difficult) trick of never letting up on the laughs. I’ve seen people almost asphyxiate from laughter during the mothball scene. Five years later he would return to the rural setting, and the theme, for his best film, The Kid Brother. With Jon Mirsalis on the piano.

Sweet Smell &The Hospital, Castro, Tuesday. Another Castro United Artist double bill: The Sweet Smell of Success & The Hospital. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Burt Lancaster’s Broadway noir for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. Tony Curtis co-stars, from a script by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. On the other hand, I saw The Hospital recently. A day in the life of a hospital moving from one crisis to another, it’s too serious in tone to work as black comedy, and too absurd in plot to work as anything else.

Court Room Double Feature, Castro, Sunday. They were made only four years apart, they’re both about trials, and they were both originally released by United Artists, but Judgment at Nuremberg and Witness for the Prosecution make one weird double-bill. Nuremberg is heavy, serious, and deals with the Holocaust. Witness is a light murder mystery with comic overtones–Agatha Christie as adapted by Billy Wilder. What’s more, the 3-hour+ Judgment at Nuremberg is too long to be on a double bill with anything. On the other hand, they’re both real good. All part of the Castro’s United Artists series.

There Will be Blood, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Paul Thomas Anderson’s small, character-driven films feel like epics, so there’s no surprise that he’d eventually try the real thing. Or that he’d get it right. Based on a Upton Sinclair novel called Oil! (the name change makes no sense), There Will be Blood is big, sprawling, and spectacular, and captures not just a moment in history but a 30-year transition. Read my full review.

And now, screenings and events in the San Francisco International Film Festival:

Mike Leigh & Topsy-Turvy, Castro, Wednesday, 7:30. The brilliant British director Mike Leigh receives this year’s Founder’s Directors Award (AKA, the Award that Used to be Named for Akira Kurosawa). At this tribute, we’ll get retrospective clips, Q&A with film critic David D’Arcy, and a screening of his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, Topsy Turvy.

Errol Morris & Standard Operating Procedure, Kabuki, Tuesday, 7:30. Errol Morris started with documentaries about the unusual and the eccentric, and has moved on to big and serious topics. As the winner of this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, he will be honored with clips, on-stage Q&A, and a screening of his latest work, Standard Operating Procedure. But I doubt anything will happen at the Kabuki to top the 1980 premiere of his first feature at the UC Theater; that’s where Werner Herzog ate his shoe.

I Served the King of England, Kabuki, Wednesday, 6:00. For more than half of its runtime, Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy celebrates the joys of serving the filthy rich. We accept this empty and amoral theme because the movie is funny and visually pleasing, but even more because Ivan Barnev is engaging and likeable as the story’s ambitious waiter protagonist. But just the fun and games begin to get tiring (for us, not Jan), the Nazis arrive. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and shows us just how low he can go. Told mostly in flashbacks, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone throughout. Part of the

Water Lilies. Kabuki, Saturday, April 26, 9:00. Us old folks need to be reminded from time to time just how bad this whole sex thing can be for a teenager, and Céline Sciamma’s teenage drama brings all those horrors back in gruesome emotional detail. Marie and Anne (Pauline Acquart and Louise Blachère) are best friends, with Marie cheering on Anne’s synchronized swimming team. But then Marie goes out of her way, and even humiliates herself, to befriend the beautiful but bitchy team captain Floriane (Adele Haenel). Anne has a major crush on Floriane’s boyfriend, complicating matters. None of the characters behave in the way you’d expect them to–especially if your expectations come from other movies. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

San Fran Fest Preview

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens tomorrow night, and I have so far seen five of the films to be presented there. Here’s what I think of them, in order from best to worst.

All of these films will have runs after the festival, so you’ll have additional chances to see them.

Ballast. Vast, flat, cold, muddy landscapes make a perfect metaphor for the lonely human heart in Lance Hammer’s directorial debut. Set in a sparsely-populated piece of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast brings us into the lives of three troubled souls struggling with loss and a need for family. Hammer avoids professional actors, music, and artificial lighting, creating a reality that Hollywood could never match. Hollywood would have turned Ballast into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit (I can almost hear that line narrated in the trailer). It would have been a good movie, but Hammer made it into a great one. Pacific Film Archive, Friday, May 2, 6:30; Kabuki, Sunday, May 4, 12:45;
Wednesday, May 7, 6:30

I Served the King of England. For more than half of its runtime, Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy celebrates the joys of serving the filthy rich. We accept this empty and amoral theme because the movie is funny and visually pleasing, but even more because Ivan Barnev is engaging and likeable as the story’s ambitious waiter protagonist. But just the fun and games begin to get tiring (for us, not Jan), the Nazis arrive. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and shows us just how low he can go. Told mostly in flashbacks, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone throughout. Kabuki, Wednesday, April 30, 6:00; Saturday, May 3, 9:00

Water Lilies. San Francisco International Film Festival Us old folks need to be reminded from time to time just how bad this whole sex thing can be for a teenager, and Céline Sciamma’s teenage drama brings all those horrors back in gruesome emotional detail. Marie and Anne (Pauline Acquart and Louise Blachère) are best friends, with Marie cheering on Anne’s synchronized swimming team. But then Marie goes out of her way, and even humiliates herself, to befriend the beautiful but bitchy team captain Floriane (Adele Haenel). Anne has a major crush on Floriane’s boyfriend, complicating matters. None of the characters behave in the way you’d expect them to–especially if your expectations come from other movies. Kabuki, Saturday, April 26, 9:00; Monday, May 5, 1:30

The Last Mistress. Pretty tame by the standards of writer/director Catherine Breillat, but still very erotic, The Last Mistress concerns itself with the sex lives of the rich and noble-born, all done with the sumptuous costumes and scenery one expects in such a period piece. The film works best in a long flashback that dominates the middle of the picture, where we really get to know Vellini for the strange and impulsive person she is. Unfortunately, The Last Mistress sags horribly before the flashback begins, and not-so-horribly-but-still-not-so-good after its over. The good parts don’t quite earn it a B, but they’re close. Opening night. Castro, Thursday, April 24, 7:00

The Wackness. As a drugged-out New York psychiatrist, Ben Kingsley looks astonishingly like Harvey Keitel, and hardly ever sounds British. Although Kingsley gets top billing, Josh Peck plays the lead roll, a pot dealer fresh out of high school, and one of the doctor’s patients (he’s paying his shrink bills in marijuana). But while The Wackness entertains, it never quite jells. As a character, Josh lacks the depth and interest needed to fill a movie, while as an actor Peck lacks the charisma to carry one. Kingsley has the charisma, but his talent can’t raise Dr. Squires much above the one-joke character of the script. Centerpiece. Kabuki, Saturday, May 3, 7:00

What Looks Good at the Festival

I thought I’d share some of the films I hope to catch at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I can’t officially recommend any of these because I haven’t yet seen them, but I hope to catch at least a few of them.

I’m not including films here that will get a regular release after the festival.

Leave Her to Heaven. Martin Scorsese has praised this seeming oxymoron–a 1945 film noir shot in luscious Technicolor. It’s just underwent a major restoration. Castro, Saturday, April 26, 5:45; Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, April 27, 6:00.

Shadows in the Palace. A period murder mystery set within Korea’s royal court. Well, it’s something I haven’t seen before. Kabuki, Friday, May 2, 7:00; Monday, May 5, 4:15, Thursday, May 8, 7:45

Medicine for Melancholy. This sounds like an African-American variation on Before Sunrise and one of my favorite SFIFF films from two years ago, In Bed. A couple meet and have a one-night stand, then spend a day getting to know each other. Kabuki, Wednesday, April 30, 9:15 and Wednesday, May 7, 3:30; Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, May 4, 8:15

Calcutta My Love. Youthful political and cultural upheavals in the 1960′s and early 70′s. But not in Chicago, Paris, or even Berkeley, but Calcutta. Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, April 26, 8:15; Kabuki, Monday, May 5, 8:30

Forbidden Lie$. The story of Norma Khouri, whose horrific “memoirs” turned out to be less than non-fiction. Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, April 27, 1:30; Kabuki, Wednesday, April 30, 12:45; Clay, Friday, May 2, 6:30; Kabuki, Sunday, May 4, 8:45

Mutum. The meanings and concerns of a dysfunctional couple on a remote farm, through the eyes of their shy and quiet son. From Brazil. Clay,Saturday, May 3, 12:45; Kabuki, Tuesday, May 6, 6:15

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. The history of a New Orleans neighborhood that fought segregation and racism way back in the mid-1800′s. Kabuki, Saturday, May 3, 1:00; Tuesday, May 6, 3:45; Wednesday, May 7, 9:00

Barcelona (A Map). A man dying of cancer, his wife, and their tenants face mortality. Kabuki, Saturday, April 26, 6:30; Monday, April 28, 3:45; Thursday, May 1, 9:45

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