Down for a Few Days

Maybe it’s the swine flu, or maybe it’s just a head cold. It feels like a head cold.

Whatever it is, I’m not going to be spending this weekend at the film festival.

Damn!

SFIFF Report: Sunday

I finally got to the San Francisco International Film Festival yesterday. I saw three movies there.

One major concern–not surprising considering the economy: The place wasn’t as crowded as in past years. The first film I saw played to a near-empty house, and there was no waiting at the concession stand.

Here’s what I saw:

Confessional. The festival second film I’ve seen this year that pretends  to be a young amateur’s early budding work. This one, from the Philippines, is fun, especially in the quirky early scenes and the satisfying climax, but it doesn’t hold a candle to My Suicide. This time around, the young filmmaker (really a guy who makes wedding videos) visits a vacation spot island, with a very different culture, to make a documentary on the big, local festival. But he finds a stranger and more compelling subject--a former politician wanting to confess his sins. The experience slowly and unsurely awakens the instincts of a real documentarian. Interesting and fun, but hardly a must-see. It screens again Wednesday at 4;00, also at the Kabuki.

Sacred Places. Another movie about movies, this one from Africa. Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, holds a major African film festival every year. But Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno turns his camera instead on a little Cine Club in a poor but apparently vibrant neighborhood. We meet the guy who enthusiastically (and occasionally profitably) runs the club, screening pirated DVDs on an old TV in front of a neighborhood audience. Other locals also catch  Téno’s (and our) attention–especially a man who makes drums for a living and clearly has great pride in his work. Commercial world cinema, traditional storytelling, craftsmanship, and the difficulty for Africans to see their own cinema all play a role. It screens again on Wednesday, at 3:30, at the Kabuki.

Bullet in the Head. I like a movie that forces me to meet it halfway, but this Spanish non-thriller doesn’t even make a step in your direction. For the bulk of the film’s 84-minute running time (It seemed longer), you watch a middle-aged man go through a pretty boring life. He eats a midnight snack. He argues with his wife. He goes into a house while a companion parks the car. He engages in many conversations, but we don’t know what they’re about because the soundtrack only contains background noises–mostly traffic. Everything is shot badly with very long lenses, and edited to enhance the boredom. The violent act implicit in the title finally occurs about 15 minutes before the end. Why? Presumably because writer/director Jaime Rosales no longer felt that making real life boring was enough of a challenge, so he had to prove he could make a car chase boring, as well. This is as pointless as cinema gets. Bullet in the Head will screen again–Tuesday at 9:00 and Friday at 2:00, both times at the Kabuki. Savor your additional chances to miss it.

What’s Screening: April 24 – 30

The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through the week. I’ve grouped festival screenings at the bottom of the post.

Metropolis, Clay, Friday, midnight. Wow! A silent film as a midnight movie! How often do you get that? The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know it through the countless films it has influenced. But the beautiful imagery only makes the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite. Live accompaniment by “electronic silent score expert” BonJon.

Milk, Castro, Monday. Yep, I’m always a sucker for a historical epic, especially one set in a time and place that I can remember. Sprawling without ever being boring, and inspiring without getting preachy. I’ve always known that Sean Penn was a great actor; it’s nice to know that he can do “happy” as well as less pleasant emotions. James Franco is also very good as the main man in his life. And for obvious reasons, the Castro is the appropriate venue.

Wendy and Lucy, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Wendy (Michelle Williams) hopes she can find work in Alaska, but first she has to get to Alaska. Traveling with her dog Lucy, she sleeps in her car and watches every penny. In other words, she can’t afford disaster. And when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, one disaster leads to another. A sobering film for economic hard times. Read my full review.

Slumdog Millionaire, Castro, Friday. Am I the only person in the universe who didn’t love this mess? Sure, there are some good scenes and funny moments, but the whole story is so ridiculously contrived I couldn’t suspend disbelief. Not only did this poor kid learn the exact pieces of trivia he would need through his mean street experiences, but he learned them in the order he would later be asked them. I can swallow a lot, but not that.

Persepolis, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. Can one call a 95-minute, low-budget, animated film an epic? I think this one qualifies. It may also qualify as a masterpiece. It’s certainly an excellent and an important movie. Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi based Persepolis on her own autobiographical graphic novels (Vincent Paronnaud shares screenwriting and directing credits). Through the eyes of young Marjane (I’m calling the artist by her last name, the onscreen character by her first), we see Iran go through oppression, revolution, hope, worse oppression, war, and even worse oppression. The story covers the war with Iraq, a late adolescence in Vienna, a return to an Iran now at peace but still under the clergy’s thumb, and a romantic life made difficult by pressures internal and external. If you’re still not convinced, read my full review. Part of the Film 50: History of Cinema series and class, with a lecture by Marilyn Fabe.

San Francisco International Film Festival

Adoration, Kabuki, Saturday, 6:15, Pacific Film Archive, Monday, 6:30. Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan outdoes himself in this story of a teenage boy of half Anglo, half Arabic decent who creates a fiction of his late father as a terrorist, and posts it on the Internet. Yet Adoration is not about a scandal on the Internet. Egoyan has a more intriguing and touching story to tell. It’s about the people left behind after a couple suddenly die, and how they react to and avoid each others’ grief, even years after the event. Not to be missed.

Battle for Terra, Kabuki; Saturday, 12 noon; Wednesday, 6:45. This animated adventure adds a new twist to the alien invasion genre–we’re the invaders. For a family-friendly, PG animated feature, Battle for Terra brings some complex moral issues to the table. Not only are the bad guys the human race, but they’re the last of the human race and facing extinction. To survive, they must kill off every living thing on the planet, including the heroine and all of her friends. This movie will not only entertain children; it will make them think. It’s also fun just as an explosion movie, and deserves to be seen in 3D, which is not how the festival is showing it. In other words, I recommend the movie, but I also recommend you want for its regular theatrical release, which is only a week away.

Soul Power, Kabuki, Sunday, 5:45. In 1974, many of the greatest African and African-American musicians alive came together in Zaire for a big all-star concert. We finally get the film version 35 years later, and it’s worth the wait. After a boring first half hour, American stars like James Brown and B.B. King play their best, excited to be home in their ancestral continent. And African stars little known in this country include the amazing Miriam Makeba, who does things with her voice I didn’t know were possible. I wish this movie was longer.

Bluebeard, Kabuki; Friday, April 24, 7:15; Saturday, April 25, 9:30; Wednesday, April 29, 4:15. To put Catherine Breillat’s name on a film with no sex or nudity almost constitutes false advertising. But that’
s not the problem. Despite two very stylized bloody scenes near the end (the only moments that might keep Bluebeard from getting the softest of PG ratings), Breillat’s latest remains bloodless, lacking the passion and excitement that make her other efforts watchable even when their stories get ridiculous. In addition to being dull and lifeless, Bluebeard looks cheap. Set in the 17th century, the film’s few straggling extras appear to be recruited from a local Renaissance Faire. The one saving grace is a modern framing story involving two little girls in an attic, with one reading the story of Bluebeard to the other. They’re adorable, and very funny when they discuss things they clearly no nothing about.

SFIFF Preview 4: Battle for Terra

Battle for Terra will screen twice during the first week of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Then, almost immediately, it will open for a regular release.

I recommend you skip it at the Festival and catch it later for two reasons:

  1. It’s best to use festival time to see films you’ll never get to see again.
  2. You really should catch this one in 3D.

Because this movie will get a regular release after its festival screenings, I’m not allowed to post a full review yet. (I’ve written that review, which will go live on May 1st.) But I am allowed to give you a short capsule. Here it is:

Battle for Terra
This animated feature brings a new twist to the alien invasion genre–we’re the invaders. For a family-friendly, PG animated feature, Battle for Terra brings battle4terra some  complex moral issues to the table. Not only are the bad guys the human race, but they’re the last of the human race and facing extinction. But to survive, they must kill off every living thing on the planet, including the heroine and all of her friends. This movie will not only entertain children; it will make them think. It’s also fun just as an explosion movie, and deserves to be seen in 3D.

The Festival will screen Battle for Terra Saturday, April 25 at 12:00 noon, and Wednesday, April 29, at 6:45. Both screenings will be at the Kabuki, and neither will be in 3D.

Sorry About That

Technical glitch. Things are up and behaving now.

SFIFF Preview 3: My Suicide

Teenage Comedy/Drama

  • Written by Eric J. Adams, David Lee Miller, Jordan J. Miller, Gabriel Sunday
  • Directed by David Lee Miller

As far as I know, the San Fran International Film Festival will be your only chance to see this thoughtful, sad, funny, entertaining, and thoroughly unique motion picture. Catch it if you can.

A video- and movie-obsessed teenage boy named Archie announces in his film class that for his final project, he will kill himself on camera. That incident will be the climax of his opus, the ultimate self-obsessed student film. My Suicide is not so much a film about Archie’s project as Archie’s project. Every shot is supposedly something Archie shot with his video camera, received from someone else, or synthesized with all the cool software and hardware in his room (I think some of the shots were cheating on this, although I’d have to watch it again to be sure).

The movie is even edited as if by a talented teenager, jump-cutting, mashing up mysuicide scenes from old movies and TV shows, and adding cheap animations where it seemed fun to do so. At first I wondered if I could take the frenetic pace throughout the run of a feature film, but the post-production pyrotechnics mellowed out as the movie progressed, presumably as Archie became more adapt at his craft.

A movie about teenage suicide should not be all about craft and clever jokes, and this one isn’t. Archie’s announcement makes this largely unnoticed kid a school celebrity. Not only does everyone want to talk with him and value his insight, but a beautiful girl who never would have noticed him before is suddenly paying him attention. But when people start paying attention to what you say, your words suddenly have consequences.

Other teenage suicide movies, such as Harold and Maude and Heathers, are dark and funny, but compared to My Suicide, they’re shallow. Also dark, almost as funny, and considerably more humane and romantic, My Suicide hits a nerve.

You’ll find the Festival’s My Suicide page here. The film screens Friday, May 1 at 6:00, Tuesday, May 5, at 1:00, and Wednesday, May 6 at 9:00. All screenings are at the Kabuki.

SFIFF Preview, Part II

These two films aren’t scheduled for theatrical release after the San Francisco International Film Festival, so if you don’t catch them at the Festival, you may never get another chance.

But with one of them, that’s not a bad thing.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Kabuki, Sunday, May 3, 3:45 and Monday, May 4, 6:15; Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, May 7, 8:40. The very idea of reviewing a history of film criticism  sounds like a journalistic conflict of interest. It doesn’t help when the loveofmoviesdocumentary begins and ends with the warning that film criticism is a dying profession, and that bloggers who work for free are a large part of the problem. So let me add my disclaimer: I review all sorts of things professionally, but when it comes to movies, I’m another unpaid blogger. For the Love of Movies celebrates the people who have defined our film culture for the last century, telling us what’s worth seeing and defining greatness both in films and filmmakers. It introduces us to great critics living and dead, and gives plenty of time to the multi-decade Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud. It’s informative and entertaining, but unless you’re a real fanatic, it’s hardly essential.

Bluebeard, Kabuki; Friday, April 24, 7:15; Saturday, April 25, 9:30; Wednesday, April 29, 4:15. To put Catherine Breillat’s name on a film with no  sex or nudity almost constitutes false advertising. This is her family film; if it wasn’t for two very stylized bloody scenes near the end, Bluebeard could easily get a PG, or even a G, rating. But despite the brief bits of gore, Breillat’s latest remains bluebeardbloodless, lacking the passion and excitement that make her other efforts watchable even when their stories get ridiculous. In addition to being ridiculous, dull, lifeless, and asexual, Bluebeard looks cheap. Set in the 17th century, the settings seem oddly devoid of people, and when a few straggling extras finally show up, they appear to be recruited from a local Renaissance Faire. The one saving grace is a modern framing story involving two little girls in an attic, with one reading the story of Bluebeard to the other. They’re adorable, and very funny when they discuss things they clearly no nothing about.

What’s Screening: April 17 – 23

The San Fran International Film Festival opens Thursday night at the Castro, with La Mission. Most screenings after that will be at the Kabuki, with plenty at other locations around the Bay Area. Click here for my continuing festival reports.

John Wayne Double-bill: Red River & Angel and the Badman, Stanford, Wednesday, 7:30. John Wayne gives one of his best performances in Red River, showing us the villain in the hero and the hero in the villain as the Captain Bligh character in this western variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. As usual, he plays a strong, stubborn man of his word who’s quick with a gun, but these traits prove his moral undoing as he leads others on a dangerous cattle drive. To make matters worse, it’s his adopted son (Montgomery Clift in his first major role) who leads the rebellion. One of the best. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the low-budget Angel and the Badman (the first film that Wayne personally produced), but I recall a curiously anti-violent western about a gunman who’s taken in and changed by Quakers. Not the sort of theme one associates with Wayne.

Big Night, Lark, Saturday, 7:00. It’s been many years since I’ve seen Stanley Tucci’s touching and funny little film about two brothers running an Italian restaurant. I remember liking it. The Lark is offering more than just the movie. The $20 ticket also includes an Italian dinner, with wine or a soft drink.

Milk, Castro, Monday. Yep, I’m always a sucker for a historical epic, especially one set in a time and place that I can remember. Sprawling without ever being boring, and inspiring without getting preachy. I’ve always known that Sean Penn was a great actor; it’s nice to know that he can do “happy” as well as less pleasant emotions. James Franco is also very good as the main man in his life. And for obvious reasons, the Castro is the appropriate venue.

Days of Heaven, Castro, Wednesday. I was blown away by this movie when it first opened–Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography turned the simple story of lovers posing as siblings into something approaching a masterpiece. But that was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if I would have the same reaction today. Besides, back then, the spectacular photography was enhanced by 70mm presentation. On a double bill with The New World.

San Francisco, Castro, Saturday (April 18, of course). A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle made before people thought of movies as special effects vehicles, San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates the non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy that, at least to the screenwriters, symbolized the Barbary Coast. But it covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. Still, San Francisco has considerable pleasures, especially in the last half hour when the earth shakes and the fires break out. And let’s not forget the title song–the best ever written about a city. The 2:00 bargain matinee is just the movie, but the evening show, beginning at 7:15, includes a live concert by Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club Band.

Persepolis, dubbed version. Red Vic, Tuesday. Note: I have not seen the dubbed version of Persepolis. However, I gave an A to the original, French-language version, and wrote what follows about that. Can one call a 95-minute, low-budget, animated film an epic? I think this one qualifies. It may also qualify as a masterpiece. It’s certainly an excellent and an important movie. Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi based Persepolis on her own autobiographical graphic novels (Vincent Paronnaud shares screenwriting and directing credits). Through the eyes of young Marjane (I’m calling the artist by her last name, the onscreen character by her first), we see Iran go through oppression, revolution, hope, worse oppression, war, and even worse oppression. The story covers the war with Iraq, a late adolescence in Vienna, a return to an Iran now at peace but still under the clergy’s thumb, and a romantic life made difficult by pressures internal and external. If you’re still not convinced, read my full review.

Pulp Fiction, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.

Wizard of Oz, Lark, Sunday, 3:30. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

The Big Lebowski, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also
built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve been maintaining this site than than any three other movies put together.

Film Noir Fest Coming to Roxie

Just in case the San Francisco International Film Festival leaves you wanting movies that are short, cheap, to-the-point, and both entertaining and depressing, the Roxie will offer a solution:

From May 15 to the 28, they’ll screen I Wake Up Dreaming: the Haunted World of the B Film Noir, a series of 29 little-known, low-budget noirs from the 40s and 50s–most of them in double-bills.

Should be fun.

SFIFF Preview

Yesterday I attended press screenings of two films that will play at the San Fran International Film Festival. Both of them will have regular (or at least limited) runs after the festival, so they’re not now-or-never opportunities.

I’ve written longer reviews of each, which will go live just before their post-festival releases.

Adoration, Kabuki, Saturday, 6:15; Pacific Film Archive, Monday, 6:30. Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan outdoes himself in this story of a teenage boy of half Anglo, half Arabic decent who creates a fiction of his late father as a terrorist, and posts it on the Internet. Yet Adoration is not about a scandal on the Internet. Egoyan has a more intriguing and touching story to tell. It’s about the people left behind after a couple suddenly die, and how they react to and avoid each others’ grief, even years after the event. Not to be missed.

Soul Power, Kabuki, Sunday, 5:45. In 1974, many of the greatest African and African-American musicians alive came together in Zaire for a big all-star concert. We finally get the film version 35 years later, and it’s worth the wait. After a boring first half hour, American stars like James Brown and B.B. King play their best, excited to be home in their ancestral continent. And African stars little known in this country include the amazing Miriam Makeba, who does things with her voice I didn’t know were possible. I wish this movie was longer.

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