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.

Film, Digital, and the Current Castro Calendar

Early every month, I visit the Castro‘s Playlist page to see which classics they’re showing digitally rather than on film. 

And no, I don’t do this to get angry. I love film, but I also love DCP (the digital standard that’s replaced film in theaters). It’s more a matter of curiosity.

As I understand it, the Castro’s management usually screens classics on film if it’s available. But I’m sure there are exceptions. For one thing, DCP cuts shipping costs significantly. If a classic has undergone a major digital restoration, DCP will always look superior. It often looks superior even without the restoration, but not always.

Purists who disagree with me will be glad to know that 35mm has the upper-hand on the current calendar–at least if we ignore new films. But not by much. Over the course of April and early May, the Castro will screen 19 35mm prints, and only 14 DCPs of older movies.

A few noteworthy selections:

The Red Shoes (April 10, DCP): This ballet melodrama uses the 3-strip Technicolor format better than any other film I’ve seen, so you want to see it with the best image quality. It was recently restored digitally, so I feel safe to say that DCP is the right choice.

Groundhog Day (April 11, 35mm): I know for a fact that there’s a DCP for this title. I’m guessing that the Castro had both options and picked 35mm.

Ben-Hur (April 13, DCP): This 1959 epic was originally shown in a special, anamorphic 70mm format. Since it’s unlikely to be shown that way again, DCP is the best choice. However, this is the sort of movie that makes me wish that the Castro had a 4K digital projector–which does better for large-format films.

Sorcerer (April 17, DCP): This remake of The Wages of Fear has just been restored. Of course it’s now digital.

Johnny Guitar (April 23, DCP): I’m really glad they’ve bothered to digitize this gem, which deserves to be better known. I hope they did a good job.

Emperor of the North (April 27, 35mm): I haven’t seen this film, but the Castro is promising an archival print. I’ll generally  take that over a DCP.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (May 3, DCP): This was shot in the same very wide, large-film format as Ben-Hur, and should ideally be projected the same way. Some years back, United Artists struck an anamorphic 70mm print, and the Castro screened it, using special projection lenses supplied for the engagement. However, that wasn’t the complete movie. The original cut has now been digitally restored, and is thus on DCP. For what it’s worth, I loved this movie when I was ten; I can’t stand it now.

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).

The Castro in April

I just checked the Castro‘s Coming Soon page to see what’s playing in April. The information is limited, but it has some intriguing offerings.

Sing-Along Beauty and the Beast: For a split second, I thought this might be Jean Cocteau’s post-war masterpiece, which would be odd since that one isn’t a musical. On the other hand, Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to accompany the movie, so perhaps the audience is expected to sing along with that. Or, far more likely, it’s the Disney version.

Harold Ramis Tribute: Over two days, you can see Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation (I assume that’s the National Lampoon movie), Stripes, and Animal House. Of course, I could see Groundhog Day over and over again.

Palm Sunday spectacular: On April 13, you can see Ben-Hur, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Resurrection. I have no idea which movie called "Resurrection" they’re showing, but I doubt it’s Alien: Resurrection or Tupac: Resurrection. Whatever version it will be, putting Ben-Hur on a triple bill will test anyone’s faith.

Sorcerer: I’ve never seen this remake of Wages  of Fear, but I’ve heard good things about it. I understand it’s recently undergone a major restoration.

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.

Coming Attractions at the Castro, PFA and Stanford

Note: This article has been altered since I first posted it. I corrected some typos and misspellings. 

I always feel a little guilty (not too much) going to a movie on a beautiful summer day. But the guilt evaporates in November. So let’s look at what’s coming up at the Castro, Stanford,  and the Pacific Film Archive.

At least one masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia will screen at two of the theaters.

Castro

San Francisco’s premiere revival palace doesn’t release its full monthly schedule until the last minute, so we can’t see everything scheduled. But their Coming Soon page gives us some tantalizing glimpses of November.

And a very Godard November it will be. They’re screening Breathless (November 6), Weekend (November 13), Contempt (November 20), and Band of Outsiders (November 27).

But before the bad boy of the French New Wave arrives, we’ve got a Wes Anderson triple bill on November 3: Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenebaums, and Bottle Rocket.

I’ve mentioned Lawrence of Arabia already. What I didn’t tell you was that it’s on a double bill with Doctor Zhivago. For those who go, November 17 will be a very long day at the movies.

They’ll also be showing the ever-popular Wizard of Oz on November 24, but it will be the new, 3D version. That surprises me. I suspect that Castro patrons aren’t the sort who want to see a classic altered.

Pacific Film Archive

I got the new, November-December PFA schedule in the mail recently, but I don’t need the dead-tree version. It’s all up on their web site.

I wrote back in May about the PFA’s new digital projector, I hoped at that time that they would do a special program of classics on DCP. And so they are, of a sort, with the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. The series opens, appropriately enough, with their screening of Lawrence of Arabia. Other films in the series include Taxi Driver, Picnic, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Waterfront . Sony’s head archivist, Grover Crisp, will be on hand December 5 to discuss technical issues before a screening of Bonjour Tristesse.

By the way, there’s an unfortunate irony in the two Lawrence of Arabia screenings. The Castro as a screen large enough to do this very large-screen epic justice, but only a 2K digital projector. The PFA as the proper 4K projector, but the screen really isn’t big enough for ˆLawrence.

So what else is coming to the PFA?

The current Fassbinder series continues until the theater’s holiday shutdown in mid-December, but they’ve added another series to supplement it: Fassbinder’s Favorites, a collection of movies that the late German auteur loved.

The UC Berkeley Art Museum is running a series Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting, so it’s hardly surprising that the PFA would supplement it with Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema. The films range from The Goddess, a heartbreaking silent drama about a single mother forced into prostitution, to Wong Kar-wai’s relatively recent In the Mood for Love.

Also in the program: a short series on New Portuguese Cinema, three films with sound designs by Randy Thom, and a series on Agnès Varda, the only woman amongst the leading directors of the French New Wave.

Stanford

Meanwhile, down in Palo Alto, the other big repertory palace will combine some of the best comedies of the 30s with some of the best comedies of the 40s. Each week, Thursday through Sunday, they’ll double-bill a Marx Brothers movie with one written and directed by the great Preston Sturges.

Oddly, the Stanford programmers could not find a way to put Lawrence of Arabia into this series.

X-Rated Movies at Yerba Buena

Some films are just too strong to get an R rating. And for the first 22 years of the rating system, those films were saddled with the notorious X. Through November and December, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will celebrate that controversial and now-dead label with an eight-film series, X: The History of a Film Rating.

In 1968, the MPAA replaced the 35-year-old-and-creaking Production Code with the rating system, and finally allowing Hollywood to make films for adults. Only two of the four original ratings are with us today–G and R. M became GP, then PG. The PG-13 rating wouldn’t appear until 1984. But it was the X rating–no one under 16 (later 17) permitted–that caused the biggest problems.

The MPAA made X an exception from the start. Unlike the other ratings, it wasn’t trademarked. Studios could bypass the ratings board and give a film a self-imposed X. When Deep Throat made porn big business in the early 70s, adult movie theaters x-rated marqueand strip joints began to plaster big Xes on their marques. Or even XXX. Soon, that letter was associated with exploitation and hard-core pornography. Respectable movie theaters refused to show X-rated films, and newspapers refused to advertise them. In a classic example of guilt by association, Last Tango in Paris was classed with Behind the Green Door. By the middle of the decade, an X rating could sink a respectable film at the box office.

Effectively speaking, the MPAA was back in the censorship business. If you wanted your serious piece of art properly released, it had to be at least clean enough for an R. Filmmakers and critics complained, arguing that X should be discontinued and replaced with something that lacked the scandalous taint. In 1990, they got their way when the MPAA replaced X with NC-17.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Everyone saw that NC-17 was just a new name for X–even if this time it was trademarked. Those who condemned anything rated X did the same for NC-17.

To celebrate Hollywood’s first years of censorship freedom, the YBCA has put together a varied and intelligent selection of X-rated films, from the serious to the sexy to the silly. Many of them aren’t really that shocking, and would probably get an R today.

To see how the attitudes to this rating changed, consider Midnight Cowboy, screening December 12. Distributor United Artists chose to self-impose an X, rather than letting the ratings board decide–an unthinkable act today. It went on to become the only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Years later, it was finally brought to the board, and received an R without cutting a single frame.

Also in the program, Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris, the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the only X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat. You can see the rest on the series’ web page. Other X-rated films of interest include Medium Cool, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, Flesh Gordon, and Alice in Wonderland (which YBCA showed last year).

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival Announced Today

In the Bay Area, we have film festivals for Jews, Arabs, Irish, atheists, Asians, South Asians, Asian Americans, blacks, gays, and gay blacks. We have festivals for people who love silent movies, film noir, comedy, and horror.

And we have film festivals for people who just love movies. The Mill Valley Film Festival is one of the bigger generic film festivals in the area. And because of its late summer-early fall position on the calendar, it’s our local preview for much of the year’s Oscar bait–in other words, the films most likely to win Best Picture.

This year’s festival runs from October 3 to October 13, mostly in San Rafael and, of course, Mill Valley.

Some promising highlights:

  • The festival opens simultaneously with two films: The Book Thief Alexander Payne’s Nebraska . The very first Mill Valley Film Festival opened with Payne’s Election.
  • Amongst the directors honored will be Costa Gavras, Ben Stiller (yes, I know you think of him as an actor, but he’s directed some good movies), and Steve McQueen (the British director of Shame, not the dead American star).  Each director will be honored with a screening of their new, not-yet-released feature. I’m particularly curious about McQueen’s film, 12 Years a Slave.
  • Four Japanese films will highlight directors of different generations. These will include the classic My Neighbor Totoro and a remake of Ozu’s Tokyo Story called Tokyo Family.
  • The drama Generation War looks at German youth in 1941 and beyond.
  • Among the actors getting special attention is former child star Dakota Fanning, star of Effie Gray, which the festival is describing as her first adult leading role.
  • Several documentaries have environmental themes, including Toxic Hot Seat, The Human Experiment,  and the epic, three-part Standing on Sacred Ground.
  • The Festival will close with Stiller’s movie, yet another adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

As usual, I’ll preview some of the films beforehand, and let you know what I think about them.

Coming Soon to the Castro

I just clicked on the Castro‘s Coming Soon page. It’s not complete, and lacks a lot of information, but it appears to have some cool films–as well as some really strange choices.

Some of the more interesting dates:

August 9: The classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, on a double bill with the famously embarrassing turkey, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was one of the few people to see this in its original, 1978, 70mm release; it still pains me.

August 10: Apocalypse Now. I don’t know which version, but the word Redux isn’t in the title–a good sign. With Big Wednesday.

August 11: Restored Fritz Lang M&M double bill: M and Metropolis.

August 16: The worst of all Indiana Jones flicks, Temple of Doom. With Evil Dead 2.

August 23: Just in time for it not being Easter, they’re treating us to Jesus Christ Superstar (a real mess, if I recall properly) and the masterpiece Monty Python’s Life of Brian. They should add Godspell and make it a ’70′s crucifixion double bill.

August 28: They’re billing Dr. Strangelove with an even weirder 60s end-of-the-world satire, The Bed Sitting Room. I loved it long ago; I have no idea if it can stand the test of time.

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