The San Francisco International Film Festival closes with Alex in Venice

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended Thursday night at the Castro with a screening of Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice. It was not a perfect way to end the festival, but it was a good way.

The crowd was surprisingly thin. There was an empty seat next to me, and the row in front of me had one person in it. I recognized Francis Coppola in the audience, and Don Johnson (one of the film’s stars) in the lobby.

The show was supposed to start at 7:00, but it as 7:14 before Executive Director Noah Cowan came onstage and asked us to applaud the staff. “I could not be more imageimpressed by their hard work. I came into this organization less than 10 weeks ago, so what you saw was their hard work, not mine.”

He introduced Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who said that she: "can’t wait to do it again next year." After some brief praise for the night’s film, Alex of Venice, she introduced actor-turned-director Chris Messina. He talked about being a first-time director, and of working with other first-time directors ("They usually tell you to watch a John Cassavetes film.") He said that, because of his inexperience, everyone involved from the actors to the investors had had to make :a leap of faith." He was glad they did.

The film started at 7:29.

A- Alex in Venice

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The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She has a son and a senile father (Don Johnson) to worry about. Then her husband (Messina) leaves her. Aside from one unbelievably stupid action, Alex of Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

After the film, five of the filmmakers came onstage for Q&A. They were director/actor Chris Messina, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor Don Johnson, co-writer/actor Katie Nehra, and producer Jamie Patricof.

Some highlights:

  • On how new director Messina got the cast to trust him:
    Nehra: He’s very convincing. When you meet Chris, you see he had a really clear vision of the film…When I wrote this script, I wanted him to play George; he ended up playing George and directing.
    Johnson: He couldn’t see anyone else playing this part and I couldn’t see myself playing it…" With a smile he added "He talked a lot about John Cassavetes"
  • Someone asked if there was much improvisation. Messina: "I loved the script. We said the words, we wanted to say the words." He then explained how they would run the camera as long as they could at the end of a take and improvise non-verbally. "When I was in the editing room I had a lot to cut with."
  • Messina: “For years I made the mistake of telling my family what a great director I would be. Then I discovered that there were a million challenges that I never thought about before.”

After the Q&A, I went to The Chapel for the Festival’s closing party. It was a fine party, but I couldn’t stay long.

A Classic Comedy and a Colombian Thriller: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is beginning to wind down. Sunday was the last non-workday of the festival. I attended two events, and hit the jackpot both times.

The Mel Novikoff Award Ceremony and The Lady Eve

More than anyone else, Mel Novikoff helped bring repertory cinema to the Bay Area. The SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award honors someone who has helped keep a love of cinema alive. This year, the Award went to critic and historian David Thomson.

imageThomson is such an obvious choice I found myself wondering why it took so long. The author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other books, he’s considered by many to be the greatest living film historian. And he’s local, a British subject who’s made his home in the Bay Area.

I like to patronize used bookstores, and I always go right to the Cinema section. Despite their popularity, you rarely see his books there. People must be reluctant to part with them.

After introductions by Rachel Rosen and Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Jeff Dyer interviewed Thomson. So highlights;

  • Thomson on Novikoff: "I lived around the corner from Mel’s office. Every other morning I would bump into him. He had an electricity, an energy, and grace, quite amazing. He had that buzz that was characteristic of great showman. And he was so much fun to be with."
  • Jeff Dyer described a game using Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary. You read one of the brief, very opinionated biographies, and someone else has to guess who that person is. Dyer played the game with the audience; the winner got a dollar.
  • On the original response to the encyclopedia: "Authors expect the world is waiting to acclaim them." It took six months before anyone bothered to review his book.
  • "I taught a class at Stanford two years ago Very smart kids. But their knowledge of film history was not that good. A lot of people think it began in the late 70s."
  • "Actors are not quite there in the way the rest of us try to be. There’s a terrible temptation to decide you like them and be kind to them."
  • "The movies that interest me the most are about the face."

Next came the Q&A with the audience:

  • I got to ask the first question, and I asked about old films being screened digitally: "I have very mixed feelings. I love film as celluloid. I’ve handled it. I love that part of it."
  • "People went into the dark to see things that were impossible. Places they couldn’t visit….What film has done is show us the world you couldn’t see. The wonderful privilege of voyeurism."
  • "Have the movies made us better? I can’t see it. They have filled our time and diverted us from other things."
  • "The remote allows you to be experimenting. It’s frightening. But it’s staggering."

He then introduced the movie he chose to be screened in his honor, The Lady Eve. "It was released a few weeks before I was born. They weren’t aware of that coincidence. The film is sublimely unaware of the war."

Then they screened the movie.

Thomson made a great choice in picking The Lady Eve. To my mind, it’s the perfect screwball comedy. You’ve got lovable con artists lifting money from wealthy snobs, and you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck at her sexiest, wrapping Henry Fonda around her little finger. We don’t generally associate Fonda with comedy, but he’s wonderful here as the shy and naïve son of a wealthy family–a man who’d rather study snakes in the Amazon than go into his father’s beer business. He’s the perfect mark for Stanwyck’s card shark.

I’ve seen The Lady Eve many times (I own the DVD), but it’s been 30 years or more since I’d seen it theatrically. And yes, that is the way to see it, with hundreds of other people laughing with you.

The Festival screened The Lady Eve off one of the most film-like DCPs I’ve ever seen. The grain structure was very visible, and there were even some scratches.

Manos Sucias

The 6:45 start time was almost upon us when the SFIFF volunteers finally let the audience into the Kabuki‘s tiny Theater 2. By the time I got into the auditorium, almost all the seats were taken. I got one in the front row, which in this particular auditorium is too close even for me.

But the movie, produced in part by San Francisco Film Society (which also produces this festival), was well worth the wait and the bad seat.

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First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught. But things will be worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. We see how people live, earn money, and find unique and original ways of transportation.

I’m giving it an A.

Manos Sucias has not yet found an American distributor. But you have two more chances to see it at the festival. It plays tonight (Monday) at 8:30, and Thursday (the last day of the Festival) at 6:00. Both screenings are at the Kabuki.

After Sunday’s screening, Wladyka, producers Elena Greenlee and Márcia Nunes, and cinematographer/co-writer Alan Blanco came up for Q&A. Here are some highlights:

  • How did you ended up shooting a film in Colombia? "I was backpacking in South America. As we were traveling, we were finding hidden beaches and towns under siege. We were told about narco submarines. After that, making a movie about it was always in the back of my mind."
  • On working with the communities: "We had to collaborate with people to get their blessing."
  • Cinematographer Blanco on shooting on a low budget under difficult conditions: "We knew we’d develop material and shoot no matter what…We knew we had to be flexible with weather and such….I don’t recommend shooting on water."
  • On using locations in what’s effectively a warzone: "We had to ask if a location was safe. And safe today didn’t mean safe next week."

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I managed to get to three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings at the Kabuki yesterday. Let me tell you about it.

B Bauyr (Little Brother)

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This seems to be the year of young boy films at SFIFF. Bauyr is the fourth such movie I’ve seen at this festival so far. It was pretty good, but easily the weakest of the four.

This time, the boy is only eight years old, and he lives in a small town in Kazakhstan. His name is Yerkin, and he’s pretty much deserted. His mother is dead, his father is gone "on a business trip," and his much older brother is studying in the city.

His brother returns for a visit about halfway through the film. He clearly loves Yerkin and does what he can to help him. (He didn’t know about Dad’s disappearance until he arrived.) But his resources are limited and he has to get a good education.

Naturally, Yerkin has learned to be quite resourceful, and much of the film’s pleasure concerns his growing skill and confidence at dealing with the adult world. Writer/director Seric Aprymov adds surreal, comic touches to keep the film entertaining. Consider, for instance, the school principal who never seems to leave the outdoor billiard table.

This is a touching and entertaining film, but not an exceptional one. It will screen again at the Kabuki, on Wednesday, at 9:15.

C+ Pioneer

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Early in this Norwegian thriller, a professional deep-sea diver—who is also a loving husband and father–tells his brother and diving partner that this will be his last dive. He wants to spend time with his family. Yes, this is another thriller from the cliché playbook. The surviving brother (Aksel Hennie, the star of wonderful Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident, and spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover the evil conspiracy. The movie improves considerably in the last act, with a climas that wasn’t at all what I expected. But that wasn’t enough to make it more than an okay thriller.

I caught the last SFIFF screening of Pioneer. But Magnolia has picked it up for an American release, so you’ll have other chances to miss it.

B+ Centerpiece: Palo Alto

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The Centerpiece screening is one of the major events at SFIFF. It’s not always the best film at the festival (in fact, it rarely is), but it’s always a big event.

This year, the film was Gia Coppola’s first feature, Palo Alto. And yes, she’s one of those Coppolas. In fact, grandpa Francis’ winery was one of the night’s corporate sponsorships. Genealogy charts  have always played a big role in film history.

Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also acts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama.

I give Palo Alto a B+.

After the movie, Festival Director of Programming Rachel Rosen led the Q&A with Coppola and one of Palo Alto’s actors, Emma Roberts. Some highlights:

  • What was it like to have the author of the book [Franco] present? "Everyone thought it was strange to have him there. But he’s an experienced director. On those days I got stuck he could help me."
  • Was she influenced by her grandfather’s film, The Outsiders? "Yeah. I love his movies."
  • On the artistic decision to make the nighttime exteriors exceptionally dark: "We were so low budget that we didn’t have any money for lighting."
  • "We didn’t get to shoot in Palo Alto because we were so low budget we couldn’t afford to transport everyone. [The story] could really happen anywhere."
  • On screening rough cuts before finishing the film (what we saw was the finished version): "What was really helpful was doing test screenings. A lot of things changed in an edit. You live so closely to [the film] that it’s nice to have other people’s opinions.

SFIFF: Boyhood and an Evening with Richard Linklater

Last night at the Castro, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Richard Linklater with their Founder’s Directing Award. The event included a discussion between Linklater and actor Parker Posey, followed by a screening of Linklater’s new film, Boyhood.

When I arrived, more than an hour before the show, the line was already around the block. Once inside, the theater was crowded, and the line for the concession stand snaked around half of the lobby.

Amazingly, considering the crowd, the show started almost on time. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came on stage and talked briefly about Linklater, pointing out that his first film, Slacker, played at SFIFF. She told the audience that he had founded the Austin Film Society.

Then we got the clip reel–a few minutes of quick scenes from Linklater’s work. These are always fun if kept brief, and this one was.

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Then Posey and Linklater can onstage for the discussion. They worked together on Dazed and Confused more than 20 years ago, and were clearly comfortable with each other. In fact, they seemed so relaxed that it felt more like two old friends goofing off than a real interview. It was entertaining, but pretty light on information.

But the talk did include some gems:

  • "Casting is like love at first site. I have a feeling of what it should be when I write the script, but I don’t know until I see it."
  • On writing Dazed and Confused: "The music came first. I just listened to the music when I wrote it."
  • “That theatrical experience is so special. That can ever die. I don’t care how big your home TV is.”

Then they asked for questions for the audience. Some highlights:

  • On Waking Life: "I wanted you to be confused about if [what you see] is real or not."
  • An "aspiring screenwriter" asked how important it is to watch films on the big screen. “It is important. It’s harder to do now..”
  • He called the Before… series "The accidental trilogy. It was never planned."
  • On the future of cinema: "The industry doesn’t care. People are going to theaters less and less…Films cost so much to market, that studios have to think on terms of how many films we can release."
  • I asked who was more important, the writer or the director (Linklater does both). "If you take yourself seriously as a writer, go with literature or theater. Filmmaking is a collaborative storytelling effort. The director is the guy rubbing the bottle to get the genie out. "

After the Q&A, there was a five-minute intermission. Then the movie started.

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Fifty years from nowpeople will still be watching Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films. It’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. You really feel as if you’re watching these people grow.

I give Boyhood an A.

There was another Q&A after the movie. But by the time the movie ended, it was nearly 11:00, and I had to take BART back to the East Bay. So I had to skip the final part of the evening.

SFIFF: Getting Down and Staying Down at the Castro

Tuesday night I visited the Castro for a special San Francisco International Film Festival event: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

SFIFF has a tradition for daring silent movie accompaniment. They bring in a local musician or group, one with a significant following, and have them accompany a silent feature or a collection of shorts. The idea, I suspect, is to attract both silent film lovers and fans of the musician. Hopefully, there is cross-pollination between the two groups.

Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s a disaster. Tuesday night fell in between, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Before I read the press release about this event, I had never heard of Thao Nguyen, or of her band, The Get Down Stay Down. Having now experienced them in live performance, I can say that the music was fun and infectious, often with an ironic touch. I would describe their music as very good art rock, pushing the envelope without sacrificing the beat. Nguyen sang through much of the performance, although I had trouble making out the lyrics.

And make no mistake about it: This was as much a concert as a screening. Probably more so.

And yet, they weren’t always playing music. Some of the shorts were talkies. Three of these were short comedies starring Nguyen as herself–or at least a vain and insecure comic version of herself. She’s a good comic actress and I enjoyed two of these shorts quite a bit (one wasn’t so good). The other talkies were newsreel segments from the 1930s.

The silent movies they accompanied included two additional newsreel segments, both about women’s beauty, and clearly treated ironically by the band. One showed the "torture" Broadway chorus girls must go through to remain beautiful; it looked about as painful as a moderate massage, and they were smiling. There were a couple of very short, color animated works that functioned as lightshows for the music. And there were two well-known silent shorts.

The first of these was the very strange "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra." Made in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, it takes German expressionism to an outlandish extreme–even though it was made in America. As the title implies, it’s a satire of depersonalization in the Hollywood system. Nguyen’s weird music made a perfect match.

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The program ended with Charlie Chaplin’s "The Pawnshop." Like everything else that Chaplin made during his Mutual period, it’s a small comic gem, filled with remarkable gags and extended routines. They were right to close the show with "The Pawnshop," easily the best picture in the group.

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But here, Nguyen’s music hindered rather than helped. Loud and electronic, it overwhelmed the picture. The drummer did some excellent, perfectly-timed sound effects, but they were often overwhelmed by the loud rock and roll. It was as if Chaplin and Nguyen were fighting over the audience’s attention. Nguyen won.

And yet I still enjoyed "The Pawnshop." And the whole evening. When it was over, the audience called for an encore. After a few minutes, Nguyen came back on stage and thanked us. But she didn’t pick up her guitar.

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I attended opening night, and managed to get to one movie Friday night, but Saturday was my first full day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

Oddly,  I didn’t see a single feature-length film that day.

But here’s what I did see:

Dolby Labs: The Sound of Movies

In this Master Class at the New People Cinema, Angus McGilpin and John Loose of Dolby Labs discussed the history of sound in movies, then walked us through an audio mix.

They started off talking about the primal importance of sound to the human experience. "It’s fundamental to how we experience the world. We hear sounds before we understand them."

They covered the evolution  of sound with clips from eight different space movies made at very different times: "Trip to the Moon" (1902), Flash Gordon (1935), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (AKA, A New Hope, 1977), Apollo 13 (1995), and Gravity (2013).

Unfortunately, that part of the presentation was marred with errors. They stated that Forbidden Planet was originally in mono, and 2001 in two-track stereo. They were both released in formats that would e called surround today–Forbidden Planet in four-track stereo, and 2001 In six-track.

They then screened Silent. a very short cartoon made by Monbot Studios for Dolby. I’d seen it before on Youtube, but it was much better on the big screen. Starring an animated Buster Keaton and clearly inspired by Sherlock Jr., it celebrates cinema’s technical evolution. It’s a fun two and half minutes.

After the movie, they walked us through the creation of the film’s audio, allowing us to hear how different types of effects, plus music, layer into each other.

The presentation ended with a brief Q&A. One audience member asked how much dialog these days is recorded after the film is shot. Loose guessed about 60%, which is more than I expected. 

Agnès Varda: From Here to There

Only last year did I really discover, and fall in love with, the work of Agnès Varda. I’ve discussed her early work here and there. So I was very willing to devote most of the afternoon to her 2011 documentary miniseries, Agnès Varda: From Here to There.

The concept is simple: Varda travels the world, visiting old friends and making new ones. But this is more than a 225-minute home movie. The friends she visits include renowned and unknown (but still talented) painters, sculptors, and filmmakers. She uses her considerable photographic skills (like Kubrick, she was a photographer before she became a filmmaker) to show us amazing paintings, statues, and works of kinetic art in the best light. She films 102-year-old auteur Manoel de Oliveira doing a jaunty Chaplin imitation, and reconnects with fishermen she turned into actors almost 60 years ago in her first film, La Pointe Courte. She re-examines a photo of strangers she took at the beach long ago, and directs a little movie about what they might be doing.

And all the while, her upbeat, impish curiosity and joy at life itself shine through. At one point, a journalist comes to interview Varda. Soon, she’s the one being interviewed.

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I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more as it was meant to be seen: On television, in five 45-minute episodes. In one sitting with a single, five-minute intermission, it was grueling.

I give it a B+.

If you have the time and stamina, Agnès Varda: From Here to There will play again on Monday, April 28 at the New People Cinema (which is where I saw it) at 12:30. Then it will move across the Bay and screen at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday, May 4 at 1:30.

Shorts 1

I closed the evening with a collection of short subjects. It contained two documentaries, two comedies, one drama, and a dance film.

This was my first time in the Kabuki since last year’s festival. Guest what! Auditoriums 3 and 4 are now adults only–no matter what’s showing. They sell alcohol in that part of the multiplex.

My favorite short was the comedy "So You’ve Grown Attached," by Kate Tsang. It looks at the plight of a young girl’s imaginary friend, who’s terrified that she will outgrow him. Luckily, he gets emotional support from his understand (and very fuzzy) boss in the imaginary friend organization. Very touching and funny.

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I also enjoyed the beautiful "Barn Dance" and the other comedy, "Angels," which is very much a celebration of San Francisco. I found the documentary "Santa Cruz del Islote" fascinating as it explored a tiny and very-much inhabited island 50 miles off the coast of Colombia. I thought I was going to hate the one drama on the program, "The Birds’ Blessing," because I could see the ending a mile away. Fortunately, it didn’t end the way I expected.

In fact, the only short I didn’t like was the other documentary, "Re:Awakenings," about a medical breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It did little more than make you look at severely-disabled anonymous people.

After the pictures, several of the filmmakers came up for Q&A. Someone asked Tsang how she came up with the idea for "So You’ve Grown Attached." "It was autobiographical. I was aware that my friends had imaginary friends and I wanted one of my own."

SFIFF: Manakamana

I just caught the documentary Manakamana, an American-made film shot and set in a very specific location in Nepal.

The setting: a cable car that takes people to a Hindu temple high in the mountains. Filmmaakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set their camera in one seat and watch the people in the other, as well as the scenery behind them. The camera doesn’t move and each 8-minute ride is shown without cuts. The scenery is beautiful at first, but loses its luster as it’s repeated. The passengers, who clearly were told not to look at or acknowledge the camera and filmmakers, are sometimes boring and sometimes interesting. Despite some bright spots, I soon found myself disapointed when another trip started.

I give this film a C+.

 Manakamanawill screen again on Sunday, April 27 a the New People Cinema, and Monday, May 5 at the Kabuki. 

San Francisco International Film Festival Opening Night

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival officially opened last night at the Castro, with a screening of The Two Faces of January. It was, as you’d expect, a packed and festive occasion. 

But it got off on a bad note, and an all too common one at festival big nights at the Catro. Almost the entire center section of the house was blocked off as "reserved." Some rows were blocked off for filmmakers, others for the opening night sponsor, RBC Capital, and others just blocked off. If you were simply a regular moviegoer who had bought a ticket, you had to settle for the side sections, the balcony, or the front six rows of the center section.

Luckily for me, I like sitting front and center, and was quite happy in the second row.

It was a pretty full theater, but not entirely full. One seat next to me was empty.

Well before the 7:00 start time, we were treated to an organ concert and the usual SFIFF slide show. The organ was in it’s highest position, blocking the screen. No big loss. I know I’ll be bored with that slideshow soon enough.

At 7:07, the organ concert ended, the lights went down, and the new Executive Director, Noah Cowan, took the stage. It was, as he acknowledged, his first time "on stage a the Castro."

Cowen gave the usual thanks–to his staff, his predecessors, and of course the sponsors.  It’s a pity that a great institution like the San Francisco Film Society has to go begging to corporations, but that’s the world we live in.

Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came up next. She talked about communities, both of film lovers and filmmakers. Then she introduced Hossein Amini, who wrote and directed the night’s film.

The Two Faces of January is Amini’s first film as a director, although he’s well established as a screenwriter (The Wings of the Dove, Drive).  "I’m normally a writer who works on a computer," he told the audience, "so it’s nice to get out and be a director." He talked briefly about the Patricia Highsmith novel the film is based on. He had read it years ago, back when he was in college.

The movie starting at 7:19. That’s extremely punctual for a festival opening night at the Castro. .

Now then, about the movie:

A Two Faces of January
The less you know about this thriller when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. This is the rare thriller that gives you time to become familiar with the characters, lets you wonder if any of them are evil, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems all too plausible (at least while you’re watching it). It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans (played by Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac) spending what’s supposed to be leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. Their predicament doesn’t remain leisurely. The slow pacing helps make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters room to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

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After the film, Rosen and Amini returned to the stage for some Q&A. Here are a few highlights:

  • On why he adapted a novel he’d read decades ago: "It just kept coming back. I kept re-imaginging it in my mind."
  • On his approach to adaptation in general: "You read a book and you feel you have a special understanding. I had a real intimate relationship with this book. That’s adaptation. I just recognized things in myself….If the book has strong characters, you can add new scenes and change things and still be loyal to the book."
  • On preparing to direct: "I directed it in my head when I wrote it. I storyboarded everything. we didn’t end up using the storyboards that much."
  • One audience member asked if directing changed his writing process? "You lose a certain innocence You think about budgets and shots. It’s something I recommend all writers do; stay involved with the filmmaking process. The more writers get involved with that, the more they become better writers."

There was a party afterwards, but I chose not to attend. I needed a good night’s sleep.

The Two Faces of January has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, and will get a theatrical release, probably in September.

SFIFF Preview, Part II

I’ve previewed another three films that will screen at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival (for my first set of three, see SFIFF Preview). Curiously, the best two of them, by far, are about the young sons of impoverished, widowed mothers.

This is the end of my previews. The next films I see for the Festival I’ll see at the Festival.

A Happiness
This anthropological documentary puts you into a society you probably don’t know–a remote, mountainous portion of Bhutan–and shows you how it’s changing with the times. And it does this almost entirely through the viewpoint of a young boy. Peyangki wants to go to school, but his widowed mother can’t afford it, and sends him instead to a small nearby monastery–with the intent that he will become a monk. He studies Buddhism, but he also plays, burns excess energy, makes friends, and acts like the utterly adorable child he is. Meanwhile, electricity–and with it TV and the Internet–are coming to town, where they will change everything. Director/photographer Thomas Balmès’ camera makes few obvious comments, and generally sits back and observes a way of life in transition. Touching, visually beautiful, with a slow, stately pace that matches the subject matter. A real gem.

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Happiness will play at the Kabuki Sunday, April 27 at 12:15 and Wednesday, April 30 at 1:00. It will screen at the Pacific Film Archive  Friday, May 2 at 6:30.

A- Bad Hair
Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he mischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He also hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and makes ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.

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Bad Hair plays at the Kabuki  on Thursday, May 1 at 9:15; at the New People Cinema Sunday, May 4 at 6:15, and  the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday, May 7, at 6:30.

D- The Militant
Meet Ariel (Felipe Dieste) is unquestionably the most boring student radical that ever went on strike–although, to be fair, his comrades in this movie aren’t exactly fascinating, either.  In the course of this slow and dull film, he leaves an occupied college to attend his father’s funeral, deals with his father’s estate, joins another group of radicals, goes on a hunger strike with some meat packers, and works as a cowboy because his father owned cows. He also has a disability, which no one ever mentions, even when there are legitimate safety concerns. Unbearably dull, with little to say.

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If you still want to see it, The Militant plays at the New People Cinema Saturday, April 26; at the Kabuki on Sunday, April 27 at 3:15; and at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday, May 1 at 8:50.

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.

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