Arab Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview two films screening at the upcoming Arab Film Festival. One of them is also playing at Mill Valley.

Captain Abu Raed, Mill Valley: Sequoia, Friday, October 10, 7:30 (rush only); Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 4:45. Arab Film Festival: Clay (San Francisco), Friday, October 17, 4:00; Camera 12 (San Jose), Saturday, October 18, 4:00. This Jordanian tale of a wise and kindly airport janitor who befriends the neighborhood children occasionally steers towards the mawkish and sentimental, but usually skirts the danger zone. Nadim Sawalha is charming and likeable as the widowed protagonist whom the local kids mistake for a pilot (hence the Captain in the title). He begins by telling them stories, but gradually becomes involved in their lives. Although his intentions are good, his interference can have unintended consequences.

The Yellow House, Clay (San Francisco), Friday, October 17, 6:30; ; Camera 12 (San Jose), Saturday, October 18, 6:30. This Algerian story looks at an important and universal tragedy: the death of a child. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed much light on the experience, and succeeds merely in being sad and vaguely heartwarming. Heartwarming? Yes, because love and community heal even the worst of wounds. The first half concerns a simple farmer’s journey to the big city to identify and collect his son’s body. In the second half, the man tries, with the help of his daughters, to ease his wife out of her resulting depression. All in all, only moderately effective.

Good Grief! More Festivals

Tracking all the Bay Area’s film festivals is a full-time job. And if anyone’s willing to pay me, I’m ready and qualified.

In addition to to the big Mill Valley Film Festival, all the festivals I told you about on the 23rd, and the additional two I mentioned on the 25th, there are two other festivals coming up:

The 7th annual Oakland International Film Festival plays October 9th through the 16th. They’re actually starting with a golf tournament (on Yom Kippur, no less), and then moving on to the Grand Lake for the festival’s first screenings. Among those opening-night films are Traces of the Trade, where filmmaker Katrina Brown researches her family’s connection to the slave trade. Other films that sound interesting include Passion of Power, about the history of the vibrator, and Teplitz: The Tyranny of Paradox, “A dark comic, sci-fi feature…[about] a young man who joins an organization of metaphysical travelers to learn the truth about his shrouded past.”

The 12th International Latino Film Festival opens November 7 and runs through the 23. (The festival also screens movies at various locations throughout the year.) Starting with the traditional opening at the Castro, it will also screen films in Redwood City, San Jose, San Rafael, Larkspur, Berkeley, San Mateo, and San Bruno. As I write this, International Latino Film Society has yet to post this year’s movies and schedule is on their site, but the press release promises a documentary on Afro-Cuban musician Israel “Cachao” López, a Brazilian Brazilian funk and hip-hop musical reminiscent plot-wise of West Side Story, and a Sundance and Berlin award-winning futurist tale.

That’s a total of eleven current or upcoming festivals (including two closing tonight). So many, in fact, that there aren’t enough film to go around. At least one movie, Captain Abu Raed, is playing at two festivals, Mill Valley and Arab (I’ll post a capsule review tomorrow.)

What’s Screening: September 26-October 2

What do jazz, marijuana, and the family problems of Asian Americans have in common? (And you thought it was going to be easy.) Excellent films on all three of those subjects open for all-too-limited runs open today. In fact, everything’s good–very good–in this week’s line-up.

Oh, yes, and the Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday night. You can read my initial report and my capsule reviews of six of the films screening. (Two smaller festivals also run this week.)

A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, Clay, opens Friday. Wayne Wang triumphs in his return to Chinese-American subject matter. Wang and writer Yiyun Lee let the drama build slowly in this story of a Chinese father visiting his now-American daughter after her recent divorce. But there’s more separating them than culture and an ocean. The sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that video technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood. Read my full review.

Anita O’Day – Life of a Jazz Singer, Kabuki, opens Friday. People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden provide you with a great introduction, wisely concentrating on the music rather than her bad marriages and drug addictions. The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings; I guess it did its job. Read my full review.

Humboldt County, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work, yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy about an awkwardly shy medical student (Jeremy Strong) dropped into a family of northern California backwoods pot farmers. But as we realize what paranoia is doing to this warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch, the film gets serious. Humboldt County pays loving yet clear-eyed tribute to an unusual lifestyle. Read my full review.

Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Shattuck, Friday through Sunday. This three-day festival of extremely independent cinema has an interesting ticket policy. A $13 ticket buys you entry for an entire day. On Saturday, that’s from 1:00pm to nearly midnight…with, I’m glad to say, some modest intermissions.

Romeo and Juliet (1968), Castro, Thursday. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but is absolutely the right thing to do. On a double bill with Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (the one staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), as part of the Castro’s tribute to Composer Nino Rota.

Iranian Film Festival, San Francisco Art Institute, Saturday and Sunday. A decade or so ago, Iranian films like Children of Heaven were an art-house rage, and deservedly so. Does Iran still make movies that good? You can find out this weekend when this brand new festival (“First Annual,” according to the announcement) unspools.

Singin’ in the Rain, Lark, Sunday, 4:00. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950’s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed. One of the all-time greats. Another Cerrito Classic.

Raging Bull, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Midnight Movie: Blade Runner, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday nights. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’ve written more on this film.

Two More Festivals

I told you there were a lot of festivals coming up. I missed two:

Dead Channels, October 3-9: In its second year, Dead Channels celebrates independent and international fantasy films, with an emphasis on horror. It’s clearly going for the same audience as Hole in the Head. Mostly at the Roxie, it moves to the Parkway for its last day. The official dates are October 2-10, but no actual films are screened opening or closing nights, which are devoted to parties at The Vortex Room.

Taiwan Film Festival, October 16-18: This modest touring festival comes to the Bay Area just as all the other post-Mill Valley festivals open. Focusing on films about “Youth and Redemption,” the festival runs October 16 and 17 at the University of San Francisco, and October 17 and 18 at Stanford. They’ll present different films at each location.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Music documentary

  • Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden

People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing.

And she lived the Jazz lifestyle, complete with bad romantic choices, drug busts, and heroin addiction. But unlike Holiday, she lived to tell the tale, dying in 2006 at the age of 87. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden interviewed her extensively for this documentary, and they treat it as the biography of a still-living, still-vibrant performer.

O’Day clearly lived life to the max. She jokes about bad marriages, overdoses, and other subjects most people wouldn’t want to talk about. And not only with Cavolina and McCrudden, but in vintage television interviews, as well.

The filmmakers wisely keep the scandals in the background (a rape and abortion are alluded to but never discussed), and concentrate on the music. They’re more interested in singing techniques and collaborations than bad habits, and frankly, so am I. The movie’s best sequence starts with an elderly O’Day sings “Let’s Fall in Love,” explaining her technique to the younger pianist accompanying her. Then a montage shows us how she sang that song at different times and with different bands, demonstrating the incredible range and variety of her performances. We even get a split screen showing four performances at once.

Cavolina and McCrudden took great pains to avoid a standard talking-heads documentary. Color patterns decorate old black-and-white footage, simple but lively opticals enliven the transitions, and images that don’t fill the entire screen sometimes move across it. These techniques occasionally seem random, but seldom annoying. Occasionally, such as the “Let’s Fall in Love” montage, they help to bring home a point.

The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings. I guess it did its job.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer opens Friday at the Kabuki‘s SFFS screen.

Humboldt County


  • Written and directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs

Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work. The transition is tricky, especially if you don’t layer in enough reality between the big laughs before the drama begins.

Yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy, where both the fish and the other-than-water he lands in are absurd and familiar stereotypes. But as the movie progresses, they let a little humanity work its way in. The laughs slowly get farther apart, but we don’t mind because we’re involved with real people living in an but real and fascinating subculture.

The fish is a hopelessly awkward med student named Peter (Jeremy Strong). Raised by an extremely dominating, workaholic father (Peter Bogdanovich in a rare appearance in someone else’s film), this kid has so little self-confidence that when a woman makes a pass at him, he assumes she’s a prostitute. It’s that woman (Bogart, played by Fairuza Balk), who pulls him out of his dad-controlled life and drops him into the world of northern California backwoods Marijuana farming.

He’s not amused. But we are.

The family she brings him to is a decidedly odd bunch. Ruled (if that word applies) by a gray ponytailed patriarch (Brad Dourif), they’re a warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch. Even the too-young-to-smoke granddaughter (Madison Davenport) rolls expert joints for grandma and grandpa. But the paranoia of their illegal cash crop, and perhaps that crop’s effect on their brains, has taken it’s toll. These people aren’t as carefree and happy as they first seem.

Of course Peter loosens up and learns to relax in this strange environment–anyone who’s ever seen a movie can see that coming. But not in the way those other movies might lead you to suspect. He develops an interesting moral strength, and while he learns to love these people, he sees them clearer than they see themselves.

Speaking of love, Grodsky and Jacobs wisely get Bogart out of the way quickly. Rather than concentrating on romantic love, they focus on Peter’s growing-but-difficult friendship with another man his age (Chris Messina), one who’s taking the big risk of growing too many plants.

Humboldt County pays loving tribute to an unusual lifestyle, but manages to be clear-eyed and critical, as well. That’s as difficult as being funny and dramatic.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Family Drama

  • Written by Yiyun Lee; based on her short story
  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Generations and cultures clash, but quietly, in Wayne Wang’s return to Chinese-American subject matter.

Things feel strained when widower Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives in America to visit his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu). That’s understandable. They haven’t seen each other since she left China 15 years before, and he’s here to help her recover from a divorce. But as Yilan avoids talking to her father while discouraging his attempted nurturing, we begin to realize just how much each of them is concealing.

Lee and Wang let the drama build slowly by emphasizing culture-clash comedy in the film’s first half. Not broad comedy (well, the unemployed forensic scientist in the bikini is pretty broad), but quite funny in a low-key way.

But the laughs ease us into the problems ahead. It’s soon clear that her father is the last person Yilan wants to confide anything to, and she’s soon doing everything she can to avoid his presence.

Everyone in the small cast is spot on, but Henry O is the true revelation here. A familiar face from costume films and action flicks, here he reveals a depth and humanity that he hadn’t yet shown–at least not to American audiences.

After the leads, the only character with any sort of significant role is Madame–an aging Iranian refugee played by Vida Ghahremani. After meeting in a park, Madame and Mr. Shi build a friendship despite a significant language barrier. The only language they have in common is English, which neither speaks well. Wang wisely avoids subtitles in their scenes together, forcing us to struggle with them to understand each other.

Shot cheaply on video, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is the sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that modern technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers screened at the 2008 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.

Festivals Not in Mill Valley

A lot of film festivals arrive in the Bay Area in the coming weeks, and not all of them are in Mill Valley. Here are some others, listed chronologically:

Berkeley Video & Film Festival, September 26-28: This three-day festival of extremely independent fare has an interesting ticket policy. A $13 ticket buys you entry for an entire day. On Saturday, that’s from 1:00pm to nearly midnight…with, I’m glad to say, some modest intermissions. At the Shattuck.

Iranian Film Festival, September 27-28: A decade or so ago, Iranian films like Children of Heaven were an art-house rage, and deservedly so. Does Iran still make movies that good? You can find out this weekend when this brand new festival (“First Annual,” according to the announcement) plays at the San Francisco Art Institute.

French Cinema Now, October 8 – 12: The San Francisco Film Society presents five days of contemporary French cinema not released in this country. From their press release: “Covering a broad spectrum of subject matter and genres, the films in this series — ranging from a rowdy rural comedy to an intricate equine nonfiction feature to a tense science-fiction thriller — build a comprehensive picture of the current moment in French cinema.” At the Clay.

CounterCorp Anti-Corporate Film Festival, October 15-17: This three-day event at San Francisco’s Brava Theater includes “films, panel discussions, and related events.” And, I suspect, political agendas. As I write this, the schedule has not yet been posted.

Arab Film Festival, October 16-28: According to the press release, its 70 films include “the first film from Bahrain, a multi-layered Moroccan feature film about child labor, a Sundance award-winner that follows a kind airport janitor in Jordan, comedies and feature films about love and families facing challenges.” The movies screen at various locations in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and (I know this one doesn’t count) Los Angeles. I’ll be able to preview and report on two films before the festival opens.

DocFest, October 17-November 6: IndieFest’s annual documentary festival used to follow the San Francisco International Film Festival; now it follows Mill Valley. It runs October 17 – 30 at the Roxie and October 31-November 7 at the Shattuck. I believe this is the festival’s first Berkeley run. I’m missing the press conference as I type this, and will fill you in when I have more information.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

I’ve now seen five films getting their local premiere at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. (Oddly enough, two of them come reasonably close to qualifying as silent films.) Here’s what I think of those five, plus one classic to be screened that I was already familiar with. I’ve listed the films from best to worst, although so far, they’re all pretty good.

Through a Glass Darkly, Rafael, Friday, October 10, 7:00. While on vacation on an island, a woman thought cured of her mental illness slides back into madness, and her family doesn’t know what to do about it. There are other family problems of course–difficulties with her husband and brother, for instance–but these are soon overshadowed by the pointless tragedy of insanity. Like so much of Bergman’s best work, Through a Glass Darkly illuminates a crisis of faith. A special Tribute to Harriet Andersson.

Idiots and Angels, Sequoia, Sunday, October 5, 2:45; Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 7:15. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.

Lemon Tree, Sequoia, Sunday, October 12, 5:45. When the new Israeli Defense Minister moves next door to a Palestinian lemon grove, and his security people decide the grove must be destroyed, the widow who owns the grove (Hiam Abbass) takes the case to court. Filmmakers Eran Riklis and Suha Araf wisely avoid clichés in their Israel vs. Palestine drama, concentrating instead on how the struggle effects the lives of everyone involved. Lemon Tree will have a regular theatrical release after the festival; probably early in 2009.

Katyn, Sequoia, Saturday, October 4, 2:15; Rafael, Saturday, October 11, 9:30. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 6:30; Sequoia, Thursday, October 9, 9:30. There’s no excuse for Happy-Go-Lucky working as well as it does, and not only because the term “Mike Leigh comedy” sounds like an oxymoron. This movie has no real plot, no significant conflict, and not an overwhelming supply of laughs. But it has a bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, loving, caring and extremely happy protagonist named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a glowing performance). Nothing truly horrible happens to her in the course of the entire film, aside from a few sessions with a truly obnoxious driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Leigh’s films have always observed everyday life, and this one observes the everyday life of a very happy person. The Tuesday night screening is part of a special Spotlight on Sally Hawkins. Happy-Go-Lucky will receive a regular theatrical release after the festival.

Cumbia Connection, Rafael, Saturday, October 4, 9:00; Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 1:30. René Villarreal brings silent film (or almost silent film) into the 21st century with this vibrant, sexy tale of a love triangle in Monterrey, Mexico. A videographer falls in love with a beautiful woman and starts stalking her. She already has a boyfriend, but that doesn’t keep her from falling in love again. Cumbia songs dominate the almost dialog-free soundtrack. The sex scenes are as explicit as they can get without becoming hardcore, which isn’t a problem. What is a problem is that these scenes feel cold and mechanical, and lack the love and passion found elsewhere in the movie.

What’s Screening: September 19-25

Forbidden Lie$, Roxie and Shattuck, opens Friday. 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 actually happened, and Broinowski reminds us of that by showing us the freshly murdered girl, covered in stage blood, sit up and laugh with her “murderers” after a take. Not only is it just a movie, but 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 after defrauding an old lady. Extremely entertaining, with jokes, old film clips, special effects, and rock and roll. Read my full review.

Opera Jawa, Kabuki, opens Friday. Astonishing sensual, works like a dream. Things don’t connect the way they do in the real world (or in a conventional film), but that doesn’t bother you in the slightest. As the title implies, Opera Jawa is a tale told in music. Characters sing of their hopes and travails, and dance their emotions. Especially dance. They dance in bed, on tabletops, and in violent revolution. They dance with abandon and hypnotic power. There’s a story in here somewhere, about adultery in a time of economic trouble and class warfare, but Opera Jawa is about the dance, and about the imagery–giant straw hats, countless candles, and the televisions carved out of solid rock. Unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it. Read my full review.

Red Heroine, 4Star, Friday, 8:30. I haven’t seen this 1929 Chinese martial arts movie, but according to the press materials, it’s about a young woman rescued from an evil army by a Daoist hermit named White Monkey. Thanks to White Monkey’s training, she can soon fight villains, fly, disappear in a puff of smoke, and perform other assorted tricks of the trade. You know, that doesn’t sound too different from a modern martial arts movie. Accompanied by the Devil Music Ensemble.

West Side Story, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen movie. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in–even the songs.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Castro, Saturday. Tim Burton’s first feature revels 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 film, is alone worth the price of admission. On a double bill with Edward Scissorhands (which I haven’t seen in a very long time) as part of a Burton series.

Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée, Kabuki, opens Friday. It’s sad when a great idea and an himportant subject lose their way. Such is the case with Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s documentary of singer/songwriter Youssou N’Dour’s African Diaspora tour. N’Dour travels the world (actually only the USA and Europe), gathering musicians whose work clearly comes from African roots (as long as they’re jazz musicians or gospel singers). This is all leading up to a big concert at a former slave trading post, which is a bit like a Klezmer concert at Auschwitz. It’s a long wait before the concert finally starts…just in time for the closing credits. You’ll find my full review here.

Midnight Movie: The Princess Bride, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday night, midnight. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Red Vic, Thursday. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise which would be forgivable if it wasn’t also boring and witless.


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