SFIFF: Thursday, Part II; Stranded

After Time to Die, I grabbed a quick bite and went to see Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains–my fifth documentary of the week.

Once again, the director was there in person. But instead of bringing his star and cinematographer, Gonzalo Arijon brought his very young daughter, who shyly hung onto his leg as he introduced the film. I wasn’t able to stay for the Q&A afterward.

Stranded tells a story many of us have already heard, about the 1972 airplane crash that inspired the best-selling book and Hollywood movie Alive. The plane, carrying a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends and family, crashed into a glacier high in the Andes. The survivors endure extreme cold, hunger, an avalanche, the deaths of loved ones, and the necessity of eating those loved ones’ corpses. Finally, two of them make a stunning trek across the mountains to find help. Only 16 out of the 45 people on the plane survived the crash and 72-day ordeal.

Combining interviews with the survivors (all 16 are still alive), re-enacted sequences, and some photography from the actual events, Arijon recreates the harrowing experience with dramatic intensity. Despite the cannibalism, these young men don’t drop into Lord of the Flies savagery. They cooperate, help each other, and work for the common good.

Unfortunately, unless it gets picked up by an American distributor, you have no more chances to see Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains.

SFIFF: Thursday, Part I; Time to Die

I decided to let serendipity pick my Thursday movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Serendipity was good to me. Simply on the basis of being there when they started and being able to get a ticket, I saw Time to Die and Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains. That was two strokes of very good luck.

Time to Die writer/director, Dorota Kedzierzawska, star Danuta Szaflarska, and cinematographer Arthur Reinhart appeared in person before the show, having flown in from Poland for the event. “You are very lucky because even though that Danuta is 93 years old, she works all the time and she plays in the theater,” Kedzierzawska explained through a translator. “But she said that she has not visited San Francsico ever, so she has to come here.”

Almost a monolog, Time to Die is primarily an old woman talking to her dog, and it’s much better than any film that meets that description has any right to be. Szaflarska is wonderful in the role–wistful, bitter, demanding of respect, a little crazy, with a tendency to spy on her neighbors. Not that she doesn’t have reasons. The yuppies next door want to buy her property and tear down the once-beautiful house where she spent her life. Despite the title, the film is not so such much about death as about how one spends the last years of one’s life.

Shot in gorgeous black and white, this was the best photographed film I’ve seen so far at the festival. The camera often looks through the house’s many windows, some dirty, some through odd angles, and some made of interesting, beveled glass. The effect suggests the distortions in which she sees the world.

The filmmakers returned for Q&A after the movie.

Kedzierzawska described one problem working with her then-91-year-old star: “She runs. She runs upstairs and downstairs…we had to remind her, ‘Danuta , please remember you are playing an old lady.’”

She also answered a question about working with Szaflarska’s canine co-star. “We chose a different dog and we trained the dog for six months…it turned out the dog could do all the tricks away from the set, but once on the set, it was paralyzed and couldn’t do anything. We had to do a very quick casting…[the replacement] had a very good trainer and he loved to be in front of the camera.”

You have one more chance to catch Time to Die: Tuesday, May 6, at 3:15, at the Kabuki.

This Week At the Movies

I wrote a record eight posts this week, all but one about the San Francisco International Film Festival. The exception covered a couple of news items about a Restored Theater and an Aging James Stewart. You’ll find all of my festival coverage at https://bayflicks.net/category/sfiff/.

We’re at the halfway point of the Festival, and it’s dominating my list of recommendations and warnings. As I did last week, I’ll put the non-festival stuff first.

Galaxy Quest, Cerrito, Saturday, 3:00. There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who are familiar with the genre and feel obliged to follow its conventions. And few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. The cast of a long cancelled sci-fi TV show with a fanatical following (think Star Trek) find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. The funniest film of 1999–one of the best years for comedy in recent decades. A benefit for ALS Awareness Month.

Some Like It Hot, Castro, Saturday. Maybe this isn’t, as the American Film Institute called it, the greatest American film comedy yet made. But Billy Wilder’s farce about desperate musicians, vicious gangsters, and straight men in drag definitely belongs in the top 20. And its closing line has never been beat. On a United Artists 90th Anniversary Double Bill with Tom Jones–a movie I haven’t seen in a long time but recall liking a great deal.

Memento, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. Only this exceptional thriller by Christopher Nolan. And how many tell the story backwards, putting you into the mind of someone who can’t remember what just happened? Okay, but how many give that man a mental disability that guarantees failure and makes him extremely dangerous both to himself and to innocent bystanders? Too many to name. How many thrillers center on a hero bent on identifying, and then killing, the man who murdered his wife? (If you didn’t understand the above, try reading it after watching Memento.) Part of the class Film 50: History of Cinema. With a lecture by Marilyn Fabe and the short “The Red Book.”

And Mary Poppins continues at the Elmwood.

And, in the San Francisco International Film Festival:

Robert Towne & Shampoo, Kabuki, Saturday, 4:00. The author of Chinatown and The Last Detail (and uncredited script doctor on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather) wins this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. I can’t think of a better choice. After the tribute clips and the Q&A, the festival will screen Shampoo.

Forbidden Lie$, Clay, Friday, 6:30; Kabuki, Sunday, 8:45. I have mixed feelings about documentaries that recreate scenes with actors, but Anna Broinowski’s doc about author/con-artist Norma Khouri justified them beautifully. None of the events recreated in the film actually happened, and Broinowski reminds us of that by showing us the freshly murdered girl, covered in stage blood, sit up and laugh with her “murderers” after a take. Not only is it just a movie, but it’s a movie about lies. Khouri became famous when she wrote a memoir about the honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. The trouble is that she grew up in Chicago, her real name is Norma Bagain, and she left the US one step ahead of the law, wanted for defrauding an old lady. Extremely entertaining, with jokes, old film clips, special effects, and rock and roll, Forbidden Lies takes on a journey with, and about, one hell of a con artist. Several times, even late in the picture, a new revelation would have me thinking “Maybe there is some truth behind what she said,” only to discover that no such truth exists.

Ballast, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30; Kabuki, Sunday, 12:45, Wednesday, 6:30. Vast, flat, cold, muddy landscapes make a perfect metaphor for the lonely human heart in Lance Hammer’s directorial debut. Set in a sparsely-populated piece of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast brings us into the lives of three troubled souls struggling with loss and a need for family. Hammer avoids professional actors, music, and artificial lighting, creating a reality that Hollywood could never match. Hollywood would have turned Ballast into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit (I can almost hear that line narrated in the trailer). That would have been a good movie, but Hammer made the story into a great one. This Film Will Have a Theatrical Release After the Festival.

Mataharis, Clay, Friday, 1:15. Three female private detectives, all working for the same agency (and the same sleazy boss), struggle with private and professional problems in this character study. Inés (María Vázquez) finds herself in a moral dilemma when she realizes that the two factory workers she’s supposed to spy on are suspected of union activity, not theft. Eva (Najwa Nimri) uses her skills to follow her own husband, thus discovering a secret that, while not really all that horrible, shatters her ability to trust him. And the older and possibly wiser Carmen (Nuria González) helps a client facing double betrayals and begins to doubt her own marriage.

I Served the King of England, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:00. For more than half of its runtime, Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy celebrates the joys of serving the filthy rich. We accept this empty and amoral theme because the movie is funny and visually pleasing, but even more because Ivan Barnev is engaging and likeable as the story’s ambitious waiter protagonist. But just as the fun and games begin to tire us, the Nazis arrive. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and shows us just how low he can go. Told mostly in flashbacks, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone throughout. This Film Will Have a Theatrical Release After the Festival.

Medicine for Melancholy, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 8:00; Kabuki, Wednesday, 3:30. One could describe Medicine for Melancholy as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. A man and woman wake up together, hung over and embarrassed (they don’t even know each others’ names). We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins make attractive and likable leads, and it works beautifully for the first hour before it runs out of momentum. Read my full (well, semi-full) review.

Water Lilies, Kabuki, Monday, 1:30. Us old folks need to be reminded from time to time just how bad this whole sex thing can be for a teenager, and Céline Sciamma’s adolescent drama brings all those horrors back in gruesome emotional detail. Marie and Anne (Pauline Acquart and Louise Blachère) are best friends, with Marie cheering on Anne’s synchronized swimming team. But then Marie goes out of her way, and even humiliates herself, to befriend the beautiful but bitchy team captain Floriane (Adele Haenel). Anne has a major crush on Floriane’s boyfriend, complicating matters. None of the characters behave in the way you’d expect them to–especially if your expectations come from other movies. This Film Will Have a Theatrical Release After the Festival.

The Wackness, Kabuki, Saturday, 7:00. As a drugged-out New York psychiatrist, Ben Kingsley looks astonishingly like Harvey Keitel, and hardly ever sounds British. Although Kingsley gets top billing, Josh Peck plays the lead roll, a pot dealer fresh out of high school, and one of the doctor’s patients (he’s paying his shrink bills in marijuana). But while The Wackness entertains, it never quite jells. As a character, Josh lacks the depth and interest needed to fill a movie, while as an actor Peck lacks the charisma to carry one. Kingsley has the charisma, but his talent can’t raise Dr. Squires much above the one-joke character of the script. The Festival’s Centerpiece presentation. This Film Will Have a Theatrical Release After the Festival.

Latent Argentina, Kabuki, Wednesday, 4:00. If you printed Latent Argentina’s subtitles on paper, they’d make a decent magazine article. But you could read that article in a third of the time it takes to watch the documentary; less if you skip the boring parts. Writer/director Fernando E. Solanas has a point to make about how his beloved Argentina must revitalize its once-powerful economy and place its resources into the hands of the people, but he doesn’t offer a compelling way to tell it. An occasionally likeable interview subject livens things up, but for the most part the picture just drags, with the narrator telling you about Argentina’s wonderful past and potential, and talking heads pretty much confirming what he said. The standard-def video presentation robs the occasional scenic landscapes of their beauty and power.