SFIFF: Kanbar Award Winner Frank Pierson

The San Francisco International Film Festival’s Kanbar Award tribute to screenwriter Frank Pierson started 10 minutes late. But it was worth the wait.

Pierson’s work ranges from memorable ‘60s classics like Cool Hand Luke to one of the best TV shows of recent years, Mad Men. As the Festival speaker who introduced the event put it, “Clearly what we have is not a failure to communicate.”

After some clips from his work, Pierson was interviewed onstage by Roy Isenhart (I’m not sure of the spelling), then he answered questions from the audience.

Among his more statements:

  • “I don’t know if I learned anything [working in the industry], but I can testify to an awful long of change in the business and in the world…The craft of movies hasn’t changed that much. It’s become much more efficient with computers and such. When I started in westerns, we literally communicated with flags.”
  • On the role of screenwriter during 60s and 70s:: “Hollywood was a smaller place then. Everybody liked to sit at the writer’s table. The conversation was better then.”
  • When asked if he would go into the same field today: “I guess I’m masochist enough to do it anyway. I’d do it for minimum wage. Thank god the studios don’t know it and the writer’s guild won’t let me.”
  • On Sidney Lumet: “An extraordinary director and underrated. Not a stylist, but a story teller. Needed the style that matched that particular story. You don’t recognize it as a Lument picture.”

This was followed by a screening of Dog Day Afternoon. It was my first time seeing it on the big screen with an audience. It’s much better that way. Pierson and Lumet did the almost impossible: They started the movie as a comedy and turn it into something serious. I’ve seen that attempted many times and seldom seen it done successfully. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more successful attempt.

What’s Screening: April 29 – May 5

San Francisco International Film Festival continues through this week. As usual, I put festival listings at the end of this newsletter.

A Strangers on a Train, Castro, Wednesday. One of Hitchcock’s scariest strangersontrainfilms, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. On a Farley Granger double bill with The Live By Night, which I haven’t seen.

A Swing Time, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double bill with Cabin in the Sky, which I saw long ago.

A Jaws, Castro, Saturday. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control  production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. On a double bill with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I saw much too long ago to comment on it now.

The Strange Case of Angelica, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, opens Thursday for a four-day run. No, I haven’t seen this Portuguese film, which received a limited run last year. That was digital. This will be the film’s first local screening in 35mm.

B+ True Grit (2010 version), Red Vic, Thursday and next Friday. The Coen brothers take on the most classic American genre and treat it with surprising reverence and respect. They allow only slices of their wry wit to invade the story, along with some barely PG-13 slices (literally) of their equally distinctive grotesque violence. Forget about Jeff Bridges as the alleged star. This movie belongs to 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who’s in every scene as a determined youngster willing to undergo any hardship to avenge her father’s death.

New Documentaries on Ingmar Bergman, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Two such documentaries by Stig Björkman.

A Manhattan, Red Vic, Friday. Made soon after Annie Hall (his first drama, Interiors, came in between)manhattanManhattan doesn’t measure up to Woody Allen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one of his best. A group of New Yorkers fall in and out of love, cheat on their significant others, and try to justify their actions, all in glorious Cinemascope and black and white, and accompanied by Gershwin. In light of Allen’s more recent personal history, his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl feels both unsettling and more revealing than he probably intended.

D Moulin Rouge, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Did this frenetic yet lifeless absurdity really resurrect the movie musical, or did it just happen to come out the year before Chicago? Okay, the whimsical, neo-Méliès art direction evokes a pleasant fantasy of Paris at the start of the 20th century, but the songs–all pop hits from the 1980′s and ’90′s–destroy that mood. The dance numbers are so heavily edited that we can’t tell if anyone in the cast can actually take a step. I don’t object to the lightweight plot (Top Hat is no War and Peace), but the ingénue’s fatal disease feels like a tacked-on attempt at depth.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A- An Afternoon with Frank Pierson with a screening of Dog Day Afternoon, Kabuki, Saturday, 12:30 (afternoon). The winner of this year’s Kanbar Award for screenwriting,dogdayaft Pierson will be on-hand to discuss his career and answer questions. Then we’ll be treated by this ’70s classic, written by Pierson and directed by the recently-deceased Sidney Lumet. Two likeable but incompetent robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale, both fresh from Godfather II) try to hold up a bank in one those rare comedies based on a real-life incident. The result is touching, tragic, and very funny.

An Afternoon with Serge Bromberg, including Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D, Castro, Sunday, 5:00. This year’s Mel Novikoff Award recipient, preservation and programmer Serge Bromberg will be interviewed onstage. Then he’ll present us with a collection of a century’s worth of 3D shorts, including works by Dave Fleischer, Louis Lumière, George Méliès, and Chuck Jones. As I understand it, everyone in the audience will need two pairs of special glasses.

A Living on Love Alone, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. “Youth,” as W. S. Gilbert wrote, “must have its fling.” But flings have consequences, and growing up can be painful. Writer/director sabelle Czajka’s second feature starts livinglovealoneout examining the difficulties a young person faces as she enters the job market. It finishes as something far scarier. Julie (Anaïs Demoustier) is 23, beautiful, impulsive, and looking for a job. But she can’t hold onto one. No surprise she falls for a charming, good-looking young man who refuses to be tied down with work—and doesn’t seem to care about it, either. A character study that slides slowly into a thriller, Living on Love Alone mixes a strong moral sense with a sympathetic eye for those too young to see right from wrong.

A Walking Too Fast, Pacific Film Archive, Monday, 8:30. Set in Communist Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, Radim Spacek’s taut thriller provides one of the best villains I’ve seen in a long time: a mentally-deranged secret policeman who’s turning from an efficient monster walkingtoofastinto an out-of-control one (Ondřej Mal). Early on, you sympathize with him even as he horrifies you. But as he becomes obsessed with a beautiful redhead sleeping with a adulterous and irresponsible dissident (no one comes off as a saint here), the sympathy quickly evaporates. He’s scary enough to make you root (temporarily at least) for the other secret policemen. It’s tempting to compare this with The Lives of Others, but although they’re both set in Communist Eastern Europe and deal with similar issues, they’re quite different. Wrter Ondrej Stindl and director Radim Spacek keep you on the edge of your seat, even while refusing to give you someone worth cheering for–no easy feat.

B+ The Good Life, Kabuki, Sunday, 9:00. This Danish documentary looks at an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter trying to stay afloat financially. Once wealthy, now poor, they can barely make it. The nearly-56-year-old daughter was raised for a life of luxury, never had to work, and considers work beneath her. She blames her mother for her attitude. At least they have scenery. Although ethnically Danish, they live in a  beautiful coastal town in Portugal. A funny yet heartbreaking look at a dysfunctional relationship. I go into slightly more detail here.

B The Light Thief, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 8:45. Writer/director/star Aktam Arym Kuba plays a classic holy fool character in this atmospheric comedy (with traces of tragedy) from Kyrgyzstan. Knownlightthiefsimply as Mr. Light, he keeps the power running throughout the poor village. And if people can’t afford to pay for electricity, Mr. Light helps them steal it. He seems to have a blessed life, with an innocence that allows him to survive accidents that would be fatal to a more cynical individual. But when an ambitious and quite possibly corrupt politician wants to use our hero’s skills for his own schemes, Mr. Light must face a challenge to his unshakeable sense of right and wrong.

B- Attenberg, VIZ Cinema @ New People, Friday, 3:15. You have to adjust yourself to the slow pace of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s story of a young woman simultaneously facing her late-blooming sexuality and her father’s mortality. The static and low-key opening scene of two women kissing in the most awkward way possible sets the tone: Be patient, and you’ll be rewarded with some unique yet believable individuals, as well as some genuine and human laughs. And with the funniest sex scene i have ever seen.

C- At Ellen’s Age, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Flight attendant Ellen arrives home to her boyfriend, who’s strangely distant. He got another girl pregnant. Then Ellen does something stupid and loses her job, and everything goes weird from there. The story meanders, and occasionally just changes without explanation. That can work if done with wit, good characters, and a point of view. In fact, it could happen with any of these. But there’s little evidence of such virtues here.

D- The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Pacific Film Archive, 1:30. From 1966 until 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania with an iron grip. Then his ceausescuown people executed him and his wife. That’s a great story, but Andrei Ujica misses most of it, instead giving us three hours of repetitive, propagandistic "news" footage with some home movies thrown in. How many times can you watch him honored by the Chinese? How many birthday pageants must you attend? How often can you watch his family happily hunting big game?  There’s a compelling story of great evil inside this footage. But rather than finding it, Ujica just presents the footage.

SFIFF: Living on Love Alone

I skipped Oliver Stone’s tribute this evening at the San Francisco International Film Festival and I’m glad I did. In its place, I caught a French gem that’s the sort of movie you go to film festivals to discover.

A Living on Love Alone

“Youth,” as W. S. Gilbert wrote, “must have its fling.” But flings have consequences, and growing up can be painful. Writer/director sabelle Czajka’s second feature starts livinglovealoneout examining the difficulties a young person faces starting out on her own—even with a college education. It finishes as something far scarier. Julie (Anaïs Demoustier) is 23, beautiful, impulsive, and looking for a job. But she can’t quite bring herself to do the demeaning chores and groveling involved when you’re starting out in the business world. She embraces life in the moment, but is terrified of it in the long run. No surprise she falls for a charming, good-looking young man who refuses to be tied down to a job—and doesn’t seem to be concerned about it. A character study that slides slowly into a thriller, Living on Love Alone mixes a strong moral sense with a sympathetic eye for those too young to see right from wrong.

Unless someone picks it up for American distribution (keep your fingers crossed), your last chance to see this unique film will be this coming Friday, at 9:00, at the Pacific Film Archive.

Czajka was there for the screening I attended, and answered questions (through an interpreter) after the film. A few of her more interesting points:

  • The first question: What was the starting point of the film. “I wanted to investigate what youth is now.”
  • She was, of course, asked about Demoustier, the young actress who has starred in both of her films. “In the first movie, she played an introvert. I wanted her to be someone different this time. Not someone who looks at herself. She just does things.”
  • I asked about the music. “I knew I wanted a rock rhythm.” (I’d describe it as very hard rock.) The final song was about a true story that vaguely paralleled the end of the film. I won’t go into details.
  • When asked about the film’s meaning: “In France, we have a saying we tell young people, ‘You can’t live on love and clear water.’ [The film’s original title, D'amour et d'eau fraîche, translates as ‘living on love and clear water.’] You have to work, too. Young people have to learn this themselves. They have to try living without working.”
  • SFIFF: At Ellen’s Age

    I took yesterday off the festival, but made it here today (Wednesday). I had other business in San Francisco, so it was a good excuse.

    Unfortunately, at least with my first movie of the day, it wasn’t a good experience.

    C- At Ellen’s Age. Flight attendant Ellen arrives home to her boyfriend, who’s strangely distant. He got another girl pregnant.Then Ellen does something stupid and loses her job, and everything goes weird from there. The story meanders, and occasionally just changes without explanation. That can work if done with wit, good characters, and a point of view. In fact, it could happen with any of these. But there’s little evidence of such virtues here.

    For what it’s worth, Ellen spends much of the movie with a bunch of PETA-like animal rights activists. I can’t honestly tell you how the filmmakers thought of these people. But I did learn something: In Germany, even the vegans smoke.

    SFIFF: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

    Two years ago, the San Francisco International Film Festival screened the animated film Battle For Terra. Although the film was made in 3D, and screened for press that way, it was shown flat at the festival.

    A lot has changed in two years. To my knowledge, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the first feature screened in 3D at the SFIFF.

    A- Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Only Werner Herzog would ask a scientist about his dreams. But that’s precisely why Herzog was the perfect choice to make this documentary about very ancient cave paintings—amongst the earliest works of art in existence, and works that show significant talent. Herzog’s movie goes beyond the conventional archeology documentary (although it is certainly that). The filmmaker’s unique narrative voice, the eerie beauty of the caves themselves, and the haunting score by Ernst Reijseger combine to turn Cave into an homage to what makes human beings so different from other animals: the artistic, creative spark. And yes, the 3D is justified.

    caveforgottendreams

    It’s screening again tonight (Tuesday), at the Kabuki, at 9:30.

    SFIFF: The Colors of the Mountain

    B+ The Colors of the Mountain. On one level, this is a funny tale about adorable boys who love soccer, set against beautiful mountain scenery. On another, and morecolorsofmountain important level, it’s about the harse realities of third-world life when caught between violent revolutionaries and an utterly heartless and cruel government. At first, Manuel’s life seems good. His family is poor, but not desperate. They have electricity and running water, and his parents buy him a brand-new soccer ball for his birthday. Then the revolutionaries mine the makeshift soccer field, and then the army arrives. Writer/director Carlos César Arbeláez shows us the effects of political upheaval through the eyes of someone too young to understand what is happening, but old enough to be horrified.

    The Colors of the Mountain won’t play the festival again, but it may receive a theatrical release later.

    SFIFF: State of the Cinema Address

    Last night I attended Christine Vachon’s State of the Cinema address. By her own count, Vachon has produced over 60 films (IMDB says 65), including Boys Don’t Cry, Happiness, I Shot Andy Warhol, and The Notorious Bettie Page. On the other hand, she’s also produced I’m Not There and Cracks; not everything she made is a masterpiece.

    But she’s definitely an independent producer with an extremely impressive track record. Her films have been daring and experimental, and have helped launch numerous careers. And enough of them have been profitable to keep her in the business.

    If I was trying to break into movies, I’d want her on my side.

    She came onstage in an untucked tee-shirt and jeans at 9:00, carrying a wine glass. “It’s like midnight for me," she admitted, apparently having just flown in from the East Coast. "They supplied me with a glass of wine, so I’ll be really honest.”

    She talked a great deal about how television and the Internet are changing the nature of the business and the art, and about how overall this is a good thing. Television offers more artistic freedom than movies these days, and the Internet allows unknown filmmakers to get their work seen.

    She noted that a lot of filmmakers are reluctant to embrace new technology. “I remember when we changed from cutting on film to Avid, and a lot of filmmakers objected."

    Here are a few choice comments:

    • “I’ve produced over 60 films, which is unreal. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I’ve seen independent film die and be reborn over and over."
    • While discussing contracts that require her to regularly post about the movie on Facebook and Twitter. "We have to think about how we build community now."
    • “When I started, there was Hollywood, and there were experimental films…then I started to see filmmakers like Jim Jarmish…and the Coen Brothers making movies, and not asking permission to make them. That’s what filmmakers are doing again."
    • “Cinema is happening on YouTube. The state of cinema is not necessarily taking place in theaters.”
    • "TV is so much less risk-averse than cinema these days. Young people have grown up with fantastic television."
    • "It’s super-exiciting to me that it’s so much easier to make a professional-looking movie. When I was making Poison, a $100,000 didn’t get you much. Today you can make an extraordinary movie for half or a quarter of that."
    • "Hulu’s what HBO was 15 years ago. It’s beginning to do original content. I feel that the play with portals is just going to become more interesting."
    • "You have more access to 1974 content than you had in 1974."
    • "Working with HBO was terrific. It’s a terrific company with a real vision of what they do and what they’re trying to accomplish. Nothing bad there."

    At one point, in defining the types of films she makes, she used a term that I’d never heard before but liked very much: execution-dependent. It means that your film has to be well-made to work. Hollywood prefers films that are execution-independent.

    SFIFF: Walking Too Fast

    After two documentaries, two dramas, and a comedy that may have been a tragedy, I felt I needed to see a political thriller. I made an excellent choice.

    A Walking Too Fast. Set in Communist Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, Radim Spacek’s taut thriller provides one of the best villains I’ve seen in a long time: a secret policeman who’s turning from an efficient monster into an out-of-control one (Ondřej Mal). Early on, you sympathize with him even as he horrifies you. But as he becomes obsessed with a beautiful redhead sleeping with a adulterous and irresponsible dissident (no one comes off as a saint here), the sympathy quickly runs away. He’s scary enough to make you root (temporarily) for the other secret policemen. It plays again on Monday, May 2, at the Pacific Film Archive.

    SFIFF: Life, Above All & The Light Thief

    Two pictures I saw Saturday that, by coincidence, happen to be adjacent to each other in the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s alphabetical list of films:

    A Life, Above All. Children must often carry greater and more difficult burdens than they should bear. Occasionally, an unusual lifeaboveallchild is up to the task. That’s the case with 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) in this remarkably touching film from South Africa. Her baby half-sister just died. Her step-father is a useless drunk. Her mother isn’t well, and is getting sicker. Two young half-siblings need care. Her mother’s close friend is more concerned with respectability than love.  Her own friend has become a prostitute. Somehow, she must find the strength to fight poverty, disease, and a disapproving community. The best film I’ve seen at the festival so far. Life, Above All screens again at the Kabuki on Thursday, at 6:00. Sony Classics has picked it up for a theatrical release.

    B The Light Thief. Writer/director/star Aktam Arym Kuba plays a classic holy fool character in this atmospheric comedy (with traces of tragedy) from Kyrgyzstan. Knownlightthief simply as Mr. Light, he keeps the power running throughout the poor village. And if people can’t afford to pay for electricity, Mr. Light helps them steal it. He seems to have a blessed life, with an innocence that allows him to survive accidents that would be fatal to a more cynical individual. But when an ambitious and quite possibly corrupt politician wants to use our hero’s skills for his own schemes, Mr. Light must face a challenge to his unshakeable sense of right and wrong. The Light Thief plays Kabuki again on Monday at the  at 9:15, and at the Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, May 1, at 8:45.

    SFIFF: Viz Cinema & Pink Saris

    I just caught Pink Saris at the VIZ Cinema (AKA New People). This was my first time at that theater (which I’ve been following at Bayflicks for about a year now), so let me start with the place.

    Located in the basement of the New People complex, the Viz offers exceptional comfort and modern projection. A moderately-sized theater with the currently-popular arena seating, its chairs are amongst the most comfortable I’ve sat in in a theater. The screen feels reasonably large, and the sound is terrific. Since Pink Saris was shot in what looked like standard def video, I hesitate to talk about the theater’s image quality, but I have no reason to believe that it isn’t excellent. Clearly, it was designed by people who cared and had the money to do it right.

    C Pink Saris was also made by people who cared, but they didn’t get it right. A documentary portrait of Sampat Pal Devi, an Indian woman who has been battling gender and caste prejudice for 20 years—often with considerable success. Her’s is certainly a life worth celebrating—and worth exploring in-depth. Filmmaker Kim Longinotto tries to do both, showing the good Devi does and the emotional toll her work has on those close to her. The problem is that Devi comes off as shrill and argumentative. As she deals with one very similar case after another, her voice is grating and angry, even when she’s comforting people. It wears on you.

    It plays again on Thursday, at 6:15, at the Kabuki.

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 59 other followers