SFIFF Preview

So far, I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

A Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy
I believe this is the first feature film adapted from a real-life Twitter feed. The title character (Patcha Poonpiriya) is a disturbed and spontaneous high-school senior. She and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) live and study in a small boarding imageschool situated in what looks like an abandoned factory. Initially, they have the usual problems of late teenage years–romantic and sexual yearnings, revolting against authority, and doing stupid things on drugs. The first half is quite funny, in a sardonic, mild-chuckle kind of way. But the story takes some very dark turns in the second half, and becomes appropriately serious. Oddly, with its CRT computer monitors, dot matrix printers, and film-based still cameras, the picture appears to be set in the 1990s. And yet, Mary’s tweets appear onscreen throughout.

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy will play at the New People Cinema Friday, May 2 at 2:00 and Sunday, May 4 at 3:00. It will play at the Kabuki Tuesday, May 6 at 9:00. To my knowledge, it will not otherwise get an American release.

B Young & Beautiful
As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old girl going from virgin to high-priced hooker to fully-developed character takes a major turn at the halfway point, suddenly imagebecoming a film worth watching. After all, a film about a teenager losing her virginity doesn’t mean much if the character isn’t interesting. Then, suddenly she’s a prostitute. We watch her have sex is old, rich men over and over, but we can’t figure out why (she doesn’t need the money). Then her mother finds out. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters.It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

Young & Beautiful plays at the Kabuki, Monday, April 28 at 9:30 and Thursday, May 1, at 3:45. The film’s regular theatrical run starts May 9.

C+ When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism
This extremely low-key exercise about a film director and an actress has the matter-of-fact look and feel of early Jim Jarmusch–with the camera just sitting there and recording what’s going on in front of it. I don’t believe imagethere’s a single cut within a scene. And most of those one-shot scenes use a completely static camera. Sometimes a scene ends, and the camera stays on, facing a wall or parking space for several seconds for no apparent reason. Slowly, and seemingly almost by accident, you get to know a bit about these two. But you don’t get to know much about them. And besides, they just don’t seem all that interesting.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism screens at the New People Cinema, Friday, April 25 at 3:45; at the Kabuki, Saturday, April 26 at 6:30, and at the Pacific Film Archive, Monday, April 28, at 8:30. It will likely have a theatrical run after the Festival, but I don’t know when.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced

It feels like winter has finally arrived, but according to the calendar, it’s aready spring. And that means this years’ San Francisco International Film Festival is only weeks away. The Film Society has been releasing bits of news for weeks, but Tuesday morning, they held the big press conference, and then the entire schedule went live on the Internet.

The festival opens Thursday, April 24, and closes Friday, May 9. Over those 16 days, the Festival will screen 168 films, including 103 features (74 narratives, 29 documentaries). The films will be in 40 languages. There will be five US premieres, five North American premieres, and three world premieres (and yes, that’s a total of 13, not five).

The festival opens with The Two Faces of January, which new Executive Director Noah Cowan described at the press conference as a “rip-roaring thriller.” Since it’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), it could very likely be that.

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Awards are always a big part of the festival. Richard Linklater, who made big splashes at SFIFF the last two years with Bernie and Before Midnight, wins this year’s Founder’s Directing Award. Since I’ve yet to see a film of his I didn’t like, I can’t complain. The ceremony honoring him will include a screening of his new film, Boyhood, a narrative feature that he made on-and-off over a 12-year period, allowing his protagonist to age from six to 18.

The Kanbar Award for screenwriting this year goes to Stephen Gaghan. I’ve only seen two of his films–Traffic and Syriana (which he also directed)–and was disappointed with both of them. The event honoring Gaghan will include a screening of Syriana.

By the way, both Linklater and Gaghan are now writer-directors. At the press conference, I asked how the programmers decided which one to honor as a writer and which as a director. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen admitted that that decision can be tricky, but pointed out that Gaghan made a reputation for himself as a screenwriter and then started directing, while Linklater burst into the film scene as an independent writer-director. (For what it’s worth, the first director to receive that award, Akira Kurosawa, was an established screenwriter before he became a director.)

This year’s Mel Novikoff Award, given to those who have "enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema," goes to writer and critic David Thomson. In addition to talking and answering questions, Thomson will screen my all-time favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve.

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Speaking of classics, the festival has two silent film nights, both with unusual musical accompaniment. The first of these, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, has Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, accompanying various silent shorts, including Chaplin’s wonderful "The Pawnshop," Slavko Vorkapich’s "Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra," newsreels, and I’m not sure what else.

However, I’ll probably skip the second silent film night, Stephin Merritt with The Unknown. I like The Unknown, one of  Tod Browning’s best Lon Chaney vehicles. Unfortunately, I heard Merritt’s horrible accompaniment for  the silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 2010. I have no desire to see him massacre another silent film.

By the way, when the usual film-vs.-digital question came up at the press conference, Cowan guessed that The Unknown and "The Pawnshop" will be the only programs in the festival projected in 35mm. (Another program, whose name I didn’t catch, will be in 16mm, with two projectors running simultaneously at different speeds.) Rosen told us that they had a choice of screening The Lady Eve on film or digitally, but the digital version looked better. "It’s a digital restoration." I’m fine with that, although I know that many are not.

Here’s something promising among the documentaries: Agnès Varda: From Here To There. I’ve only recently come to appreciate Varda–the queen of the French New Wave. I’m sure she’d be as famous as Godard and Truffaut if she’d been born with a penis. In this French TV miniseries, she travels the world and interviews interesting people. But at 225 minutes, it’s a major time commitment. 

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The festival will close with the family drama Alex of Venice, about an environmental lawyer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) struggling after her husband leaves her. According to the website and the press conference, Don Johnson gives an excellent performance as her aging actor father (possibly not a major stretch).

TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

Noir is a French Word: Two French Films at Noir City

On Saturday, the Noir City festival honored the nation that first recognized Film Noir as a genre, and gave that genre a name. Unfortunately, my wife and I were only able to attend the first two films.

A- Pépé Le Moko
You can’t talk about this 1937 thriller without talking about star power. This is not by a long shot the greatest film starring Jean Gabin (that would be Grand Illusion), but if there’s a better vehicle for Gabin’s talent, his looks, his sex appeal, and his ability to hold your attention, I haven’t seen it. Officially, this movie is about a brilliant criminal living in an impenetrable neighborhood where the cops can’t possibly find him. In reality, it’s about how wonderfully Gabin could spin his magic over an audience.

And that’s enough to make a wonderfully entertaining motion picture.

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That impenetrable neighborhood is Algiers’ Casbah, the "Arab section" of the city that was actually a melting pot of people from all over the world. With its steep staircases and winding streets, it’s a world onto its own, and one uncontrolled by the French colonial government. Director Julien Duvivier and designer Jacques Krauss use both real locations and (mostly) studio sets to create a filthy yet exotic setting that becomes the film’s second leading character.

Before the film began, festival founder (and self-proclaimed "Czar of Noir") Eddie Muller talked a bit about Gabin, his life, and his professional relationship Duvivier. It was a good talk.

The 35mm print from Rialto Pictures had seen better days. The scratches and white flecks didn’t ruin the film, but they detracted somewhat from the overall enjoyment. A greater concern: While much of the film had the wonderful sharpness of a good 35mm print, other scenes looked washed out, as if made from a copy several generations away from the original negative. I hope someone finds the money and footage necessary  to give this film a full restoration.

B Jenny Lamour (aka Quai des Orfèvres)
Murder, lust, a beautiful singer, a dirty old millionaire, a jealous husband, a tired cop, and a lesbian photographer turn this 1947 noir into a tight little entertainment. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to make the great Wages of Fear.

Although still dark, Jenny Lamour is considerably lighter than that masterpiece. This is noir as pure entertainment. The title character (Suzy Delair) is a rising singer, well-aware of the importance of her sex appeal in helping that rise. Things get so bad that her pianist husband (Bernard Blier) sets out to murder one of her admirers–a powerful and wealthy womanizer. But when he arrives at his would-be victim’s home, he finds that another murderer has beat him to it. And yet, the clues all point to him.

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The story captures the excitement and camaraderie of the theater world, brings in several fun (if not always realistic) characters, and provides quite a bit of suspense. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Muller gave a brief talk about this one, as well. He talked about Clouzot and his guilt as a collaborator during the occupation. He also noted that, while an American film of 1947 could only hint that a character is gay, a French film from that year could say in the open.

This time, Rialto provided the festival with a stunningly beautiful 35mm print.

Crime on both sides of the border: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, taking in the first full day of the Noir City festival. It was a long day–a triple-bill matinee, a short dinner break, and a double-bill evening show. Mexico was the common theme.

Technically speaking, only the matinee had a Mexican theme. It started with a Hollywood thriller about illegal immigration with a Mexican hero. That was followed by two Mexican movies. All three films were pretty obscure, at least for American audiences.

The evening event screened two classic, well-loved noirs, both recently restored. The first one ended in Mexico; the second was mostly set there, although the main characters were all American.

Amazingly, all three of the American films–made in the late 40s and early 50s–managed to avoid the most obnoxious of Mexican stereotypes. The Mexican characters were as intelligent, hard-working, honest, and decent as the American characters. On the other hand, since this was noir, that’s not saying much.

The Matinee

B Border Incident
Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of the most controversial subjects of our own time. If made today, this 1949 MGM thriller about illegal immigration would anger both sides. The immigrants are treated sympathetically– as exploited victims. Those who smuggle them across the border and put them to work picking crops are evil villains in the great noir tradition. Those in law enforcement–Yankee and Mexican working together–are virtuous and courageous heroes, motivated only by a desire to stop the exploitation of the workers.

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Border Incident gives us two detective heroes–one Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and one American (future senator George Murphy). Of the two, Montalban–a Mexican who was seldom cast as one in his Hollywood career–has the larger and more impressive role. Not that the casting measures up to 21st century enlightenment. Another major Mexican good guy, a farm worker who effectively becomes Montalban’s sidekick, is played by James Mitchell in swarthy makeup.

Leaving aside social and racial issues, Border Incident is a well-made thriller set mostly in rural areas. It provides suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. (On the other hand, I have never seen quicksand outside of a movie.)

The 35mm print was just fine.

B+ In the Palm of Your Hand 
The perfect crime goes horribly wrong in this Mexican tale of wealth and greed. Arturo de Córdova stars as a fortune teller who uses detective skills to convince his clients of his magical powers. When he discovers that a beautiful widow murdered her husband–with the help of her handsome but not-too-bright lover–the clairvoyant sees the chance to augment his income with some blackmail. But the widow (Leticia Palma) has other plans, and a talent for getting what she wants out of men.

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In the Palm of Your Hand becomes a story of a good man tempted into evil, with disastrous results. Palma creates the first of two great femme fatales I encountered on Saturday. And the flat tire sequences is a masterpiece of suspense.

This film has never been released in the USA, and the 35mm print lacked English subtitles. Noir City used the Castro’s digital projector to display newly-translated subtitles live over the film image. That worked fine for the most part, but occasionally got out of sync.

B+ Victims of Sin 
The best flick in the triple bill was also the weirdest, and could reasonably be described as a noir musical. Actually, it’s a strange hybrid now called a cabaretera film, that combines melodrama with music. Like the earliest Hollywood musicals, they’re generally set in the world of live entertainment, allowing for realistically-motivated song and dance sequences.

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Victims of Sin sports a silly plot, ridiculous characters, and entertaining musical numbers. But what sets it above all that is the films’ star, a force of nature named Ninón Sevilla. A blonde firebrand and magnificent dancer with the energy of a firecracker, she lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Whether she’s dancing with a drummer in a cabaret or jumping through a window guns ablazing, she holds the screen like few others.

The Festival screened the only English-subtitled print of Victims of Sin. Aside from some difficult-to-read subtitles, I have no complaints.

The Evening Show

A Too Late For Tears 
Lizabeth Scott created the other great femme fatal of the day as a housewife willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune. When a stranger tosses a satchel of cash into the family car, her husband wants to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. But that poor man is no match for his scheming wife. Neither is the crook whose car the satchel was supposed to be tossed into.

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This is noir at its most entertaining. That paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder (the professional crook is downright decent by comparison). Filled with tricky plot twists, witty dialog, and almost no production values, it provides a chance to both root for a dangerous killer and cheer at her ultimate downfall.

The Film Noir Foundation recently restored Too Late For Tears. Before the screening, Eddie Muller explained the problems finding decent source materials for the restoration. At one point they almost acquired an original nitrate print, but the trail went cold when the print’s owner suddenly died (which sounds like a noir plot). The 35mm restoration print (the FNF lacked the funds to restore it digitally) proved uneven in image quality. But it was never so bad as to compromise the pleasure of watching this excellent  movie.

A The Hitch-Hiker
Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, the only woman director of the Hollywood studio era, The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that runs only 71 minutes. The story is simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police. Holding them at gunpoint, he forces his prisoners to drive into Baja California, where he hopes to cover his tracks and be safe forever. They know quite well that he only intends to keep them alive until he no longer needs them.

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This three-person tale is taut and suspenseful throughout. William Talman doesn’t bring nuance to the killer, but he brings a menace that could curdle water. I suspect that a generation swore off giving lifts to hitchhikers after seeing this movie.

The Library of Congress recently restored The Hitch-Hiker, and Noir City screened a beautiful new print. (And no, the picture above is not from the restoration.)

Noir City Opening Night

My wife and I arrived at the Castro more than 30 minutes before curtain time. It was already packed. A trio, the Fly Right Sisters, entertained us with songs from the 40s (or there abouts). The singers, along with many in the audience, were dressed appropriately.

Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a great night.

Journey into Fear

This was my first chance seeing Orson Welles’ third film, and the last he made on his RKO contract. The first two on that contract were Citizen Kane and The Magnificient Ambersons, so you would expect number three to be something special.

It wasn’t. It was a short, simple war-time thriller, with a good but not exceptional story and a strong sense of humor. It was a Mercury Theater production, and all the familar faces from Kane and Ambersons were there. Joseph Cotten starred as an American armaments engineer on business in Turkey for the war effort (this was made in 1943). Someone working for the Germans wants to kill him, and he finds himself on a rundown cargo ship with his would-be killer in the room across the hall.

Like almost every American film Welles’ made after Kane, this one was seriously tampered with by the studio, with more than a third of its runtime cut without Welles’ approval. As Eddie Muller noted in his introduction before the film, this reoccuring theme in Welles’ work was as much a fault of the auteur’s as of the suits. Welles had a habit of abandoning a project before it was through.

The festival screened Journey into Fear off an acceptable but not exceptional 35mm print. It showed some wear-and-tear, and the focus was a bit soft. Despite its important director, this is not a title anyone is bothering to restore. (Of course, a real restoration would involve recovering footage that was destroyed more than 70 years ago.)

The Third Man

This one really is one of the great movies of all time–and that’s not just my opinion. It regularly appears near the top of Greatest Films lists. Noir found its most fertile ground in the post-World War II disillusionment. And The Third Man, set and shot in shell-shocked post-war Vienna, is as disillusioned as they come.

Joseph Cotten stars as a struggling American novelist who comes to Vienna–an occupied city divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors–to take a job offered to him by old, very close friend. But he arrives to find the friend recently killed in a car accident. What’s worse, the friend has been accused of some very nasty blackmarket trading. As the writer looks into the story, nothing proves to be as it seems.

The film is immensely entertaining, often funny, and yet very, very bleak. Much of it was filmed amongst the rubble of a once-beautiful city where people now scamble for food. The protagonist learns that the best friend he grew up with is thoroughly evil–something he had never expected. The female lead (Alida Valli) is facing a life under Communism.

Outside of musicals, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film so well remembered for its score. Anton Karas, a local Austrian musician, wrote and recorded the score himself. Director Carol Reed was so impressed with Karas’ work that he superimposed the opening credits over a close-up of the instrument being played.

Noir City screened The Third Man is a beautiful 35mm print.

 

Upcoming Festivals: Subtitled Noir and Subtitled German

We think of film noir as a very American genre…which is kind of weird. After all, the very word noir should remind us that the French recognized a unique style and gave it a name.

So I’m happy to tell you that in its12th installment, Noir City goes international. There will be films from Spain, Norway, Argentina , Japan, and (of course) France. And for those who don’t like subtitles, you’ll even find movies from Britain and the USA.

To get things started off properly, the opening night double bill includes The Third Man, universally considered one of the greatest films of all time. And an international one. It’s a British picture, made with American money and with an American star (Joseph Cotten), and shot on location in Vienna. The other half of the bill is Journey Into Fear, also starring Cotten. Orson Welles made important contributions to both opening movies.

Germany looks at its shameful past (talk about noir) in The Murderers Are Among Us and Berlin Express . There will be three films from Argentina. The French films include the always fun Pépé Le Moko and the great Wages of Fear. Even my all-time favorite auteur, Akira Kurosawa, gets a double bill, with Drunken Angel  (Toshiro Mifune ‘s break-out role) and Stray Dog.

Drunken Angel

Among the American films, you’ll find new restorations of Too Late For Tears  and The Hitch-Hiker. The later was directed by Ida Lupino. Best remembered as an actress, she was one of very few women who got to direct during the Hollywood studio era. And since studio-era Hollywood could stand for any place in the world, the festival will close with a triple bill of three American films set in the far east: Singapore, Macao, and The Shanghai Gesture.

But before Noir City opens, Berlin & Beyond will treat us to a glimpse of the current state of German-language cinema. These aren’t all German films; some are from Austria, Switzerland, and even one from India. But they all have one thing in common: If you don’t understand German, you’re going to be reading subtitles.

I haven’t seen any of these films, but some of the more interesting titles include Breaking Horizons, which won the Best German Language Feature Film award at the Zürich Film Festival, Gold, set in the Alaskan gold rush, and the documentary Sound of Heimat – Germany Sings, about German folk music.

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Berlin & Beyond will play five days at the Castro, then move to the Goethe-Institut for the last two days.

The Bay Area needs another film festival like it needs…

Like a herd of zombies hungry for human flesh, the 10th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival will take over the Balboa on November 29 and not let go until December 5. Then it will move to the New People Cinema, where it will continue to devour brains until the 19th.

We think of film festivals as events that celebrate the most serious, artistic, and high-minded aspects of the cinematic arts–a place where we may find the next Bergman. But Hole in the Head is an entirely different beast, and I use that word intentionally.  For three weeks, it will exhibit the best (or in some cases, arguably the worst) in new independent horror, sci-fi and fantasy films.

With a few classics get shown, as well. The festival will screen Jaws–a great film in my opinion–and Kubrick’s  The Shining. They’re showing both in 35mm, and making a big deal about it. Actually, they’ve got two Shining events, the other being The Shining Forwards and Backwards, which apparently is exactly what the name implies.

You haven’t heard of most of the films to be screened. At least I haven’t. Starting with the opening night picture, All Cheerleaders Die, the titles are, in nothing else, evocative. They include Bath Salt Zombies, Cannon Fodder, Lola Rock’n’Rolla’s Lez-ploitation, The Cohasset Snuff Film, Midnight Snack, Septic Man, Cannibal Diner, Slew Hampshire, So, Now I’m a ZombieThe G-String Horror Demon Cut, The Town That Christmas Forgot, and the title that probably promises more than it delivers, Pinup Dolls on Ice.

And just to reassure you that the festival is family friendly, there will be a matinee of Saturday Morning Cartoons; children admitted free.

Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

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After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

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12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.

Mill Valley Film Festival Report: Costa-Gavras Tribute

Greek/French filmmaker Costa-Gavras has been making slick, exciting political films since the 1960s. His works have attacked Fascism, Communism, American foreign policy, and a Pope. Friday night, he stepped up onto the stage at the Rafael‘s downstairs auditorium to discuss his career and screen his latest film.

But he didn’t step up on time. The Mill Valley Film Festival event honoring him started 20 minutes late. A festival representative told us that they were "waiting for talent to arrive." I’m not sure if the tardy talent was Costa-Gavras, or the program’s moderator, actor Peter Coyote.

But once they were both onstage, all was forgiven.

imageCoyote started by asking the Greek-born director about his family history and how that effected his world view. His father resisted during the German occupation, but he hated the Greek king almost as much as the Nazis. This got him, and his family, into trouble. "He lost his job, and his son couldn’t go to the university for years. I needed a certificate that my parents weren’t Communist or left…The King’s family was a half-Nazi family."

Not surprisingly, most of the talk was about politics, and about the problems of financing political films. "I made movies to teach people."

Costa-Gavras is a leftist, but he made it clear that he’s open-minded. "There are good people everywhere. And there are bad people on the left as well as the right."

imageThey talked quite a bit about his first American film, Missing. He was given the book, and an existing script which he didn’t like. He told Universal Studios that "I would like to do the book, but only the last seven pages when the father is looking for his son."

Contrary to what we expect, Universal didn’t pressure him to tone down the film. They were, however, reluctant to cast Jack Lemmon in the lead, because it wasn’t a comedy. Both Costa-Gavras and Universal were sued for defamation by people the film criticized. "We won. We also won the Oscar for best screenplay."

After talking about some of his other works, they introduced the evening’s feature–his latest film, Capital. "I hope the audience will be disturbed. I hope you will be disturbed."

I’m giving Capital an A-.

Gad Elmaleh stars as Marc Tourneuil, a young bank officer who by a stroke of luck becomes CEO of one of the largest banks in Europe. Soon, an American hedge fund wants to do business with him. Or maybe the hedge fund wants to take over his business and destroy him. Early on, Marc shows some signs of scruples,but he’s soon playing the Americans’ games, laying off thousands of people in order to improve the company’s stock price. He’s definitely Capital’s protagonist, but I’d be hard put to call him the hero, since he spends so much time acting like a villain. Much of the film’s financial talk went over my head, but the human factors driving and being driven by the high-stakes poker game were all I needed to enjoy Capital.

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Friday’s screening was the Bay Area’s premiere. The film will open in theaters in early November.

After the screening, Costa-Gavras and Coyote returned to the stage to discuss the film:

  • How did he research Capital? "First, from the book. But I had to go myself to do a lot of research. I thought the book was very outrageous [in how much money these people made]. But I talked to a bank executive and he said that the numbers were too low."
  • "I wanted to make movie about how money effects us."
  • On the differences between European and  American banking: "There are no regulations here. The system is completely free. There are more regulations in France, but there are less of them then there used to be. In all democracies, power is now with the people who have the money."

In the last part of the evening, Costa Gavras took questions from the audience.

  • On the overwhelming presence of technology in the film: It’s "reality. They live in a world where they talk to each other with new technology. It’s everywhere."
  • "Cinema can change society. We don’t work for the government, we make movies with our thinking, our questioning. Cinema can be free. Much freer than television." (Personally, I don’t agree with that statement. A TV show like The Wire could only have been made with a great deal of freedom.)
  • Are Euopean banks really that different? That pure? "They used to be a little better. The problem is that there is no global regulation. If it’s not global, it’s a mess."
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