SFIFF Report: Vegetarian Restaurants, Hippy Communes, and The Source

I closed out the second San Francisco International Film Festival weekend with another documentary. This one wasn’t about our horrifying future, but our wild past.

B+ The Source
You’d expect a documentary about an early 70s LA-based cult and hippy commune, centered around a charismatic leader, to be an exposé–names like Charles Manson and Jim Jones come to mind. But The Source is a surprisingly the_sourcebalanced view of Jim Baker’s "family," the Source. Told almost entirely from the point of view of former commune members, the film paints a largely nostalgic picture of early new age spirituality and anti-materialistic idealism. But while it paints Baker as a truly holy man whose insights improved the lives of his followers, it also shows how his megalomania and his libido compromised and hurt the family. Structured like a three-act narrative feature, The Source tells its story efficiently and engagingly. If you’re interested in alternative lifestyles or new religions, or are just nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius, you’ll want to catch this one.

After the screening, directors Jodi Wille and Maria Demopolous, plus several veterans of the Source family, came up for Q&A. The veterans still refer to Baker as "Father."

A few of their choice comments:

  • "We had a three-hour cut. It was really hard to shorten it. We had to cut out characters. The bonus DVD will be very special."
  • On the mental health of the children born in the commune: "The children were treated very well in the family. I haven’t heard of any problems with the kids. No more than usual."
  • "It wasn’t all perfect, but it was the most amazing experience of my life, and it changed my life for the better."
  • [Baker] fit very much the Jungian hero archetype.

I saw the last festival screening. However, The Source is on the festival’s list of films that will likely receive a theatrical release.

SFIFF: Sobering but Entertaining Water Crisis Documentary: Last Call at the Oasis

My first movie today at the San Francisco International Film Festival wasn’t exactly fun, but it’s arguably the most important film I’ve seen at this year’s festival.

B+ Last Call at the Oasis
Water covers most of this planet’s surface, yet the human race is rapidly running out of safe drinking water. Unless you’re deep in denial, you already know this. Jessica last_call_oasis copyYu’s surprisingly polished documentary makes it that much harder to remain in denial. (Of course, if you’re denying the problem, you won’t see the movie, but that’s the problem with every political documentary.) With the help of original and stock footage, news clips, informative animation, and experts speaking directly to the camera (including the real Erin Brockovich), Yu shows us how as more water is tapped upriver, communities downriver are doomed, how industrial pollution is making the water we have unsuitable for consumption, and how global warming is making the problem worse. Hollywood-quality flashy graphics and occasional humor help make this doc watchable, but no less frightening.

Last Call at the Oasis will screen two more times before the festival closes: Tuesday, 9:30 at the SF Film Society Cinema, and Thursday, 8:40, at the Pacific Film Archive. The festival has promised Yu in person on Tuesday.

The title is on the festival’s list of films likely to receive a theatrical release.

SFIFF Centerpiece: Your Sister’s Sister

Last night I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s Centerpiece presentation, consisting of a movie, a Q&A, and a party.

A- Your Sister’s Sister
This film kept surprising me. The opening scene, involving a group of young adults memorializing a recently-deceased friend,  felt like The Big Chill. But the movie wasyour_sisters_sister about only two of the people at that wake. I soon realized, correctly, that it was a romantic sex comedy. But my other assumptions were wrong. I thought it was shallow; then the characters deepened. I figured out whom was going to end up with whom, and what artificial crisis would end the second act.  Boy, was I wrong! It just kept getting better–more surprising, more character-driven and realistic, and funnier, because the humor was coming from something real. So many movies start promising and deteriorate; it was nice to see one that just kept getting better.

This was the only screening at the festival, but IFC Films has picked up Your Sister’s Sister for theatrical release.

After the movie, festival programmer Rachel Rosen and one of the film’s stars, Rosemarie DeWitt, came onstage to discuss the picture and writer/director Lynn Shelton’s improvisational style.

Some of DeWitt’s comments:

  • Mark Duplass (another one of the stars) originally got the idea for the story. He brought it to Lynn. In the original conception, he goes to Iris’ house and meets her hot mom.
  • I was shooting this film and [television series] The United States of Tara at same time, flying between LA and Seattle.
  • Usually the script is everything. With this one you sort of showed up and are told "You’re gonna talk about my butt?"
  • Lynn quietly asked me "Could you say something in this next take that would really embarrass Emily."
  • When we shot it I thought out was a drama. When I watched it with you folks I realized out was a comedy.

After the discussion, I made my way to the Centerpiece party in downtown San Francisco. The DJ played dance music at a reasonably loud level but not painfully so (no one danced). There were places where you could get away from the music almost entirely. The drinks were on the house. The food was good.

I had a good time.

SFIFF Report: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Within minutes of getting out of Unforgiven, I was back in the same auditorium for this documentary.

B+ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
I’ve never seen the point of performance art (as opposed to the performing arts, whichMarina Abramovic I love), but Matthew Akers’ documentary on this particular performing artist won me over. It follows Abramovic’s preparations and presentation of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63). For her art, she puts herself through more physical torture than a ballerina or a stunt double. For this show, she sat for many hours a day, not saying a word and barely moving, as museum patrons sat down across from her and looked into her eyes for a few minutes. Often, they ended up crying.

It plays again, tomorrow, at the Pacific Film Archive at 5:40.

Will you have other chances to see it? The film opened with an HBO logo. I don’t know whether that means it has played on the premium network or it will. Also, the festival included Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present on their list of films that will or may receive commercial release after the festival.

SFIFF Report: Kanbar Awards: David Webb Peoples & Unforgiven

I started the day at the Kanbar Award presentation honoring screenwriter David Webb Peoples.

After an introduction and a selection of clips from his films (which include Bladerunner, Unforgiven, Hero, and 12 Monkeys, Peoples was interviewed on stage by novelist James Dalessando, an old friend of his.

A few notable Peoples comments:

  • Peoples started out wanting to write books. Then "I started seeing some of those great movies. I thought books are shit. Writings is shit. Everything is images. I worked as an editor at KQED. I had nothing but distain for the writers. Subsequently I got a job editing a picture. The script seemed to me pretty awful. I felt I could write better. I started writing screenplays. I got to love writing screenplays."
  • "I’ve always liked revisionist westerns. I wasn’t crazy about John Ford."
  • On directing (which he did once): "I didn’t get it so good. I had a good cast, a good crew, even had enough money. I realized my limitations."
  • On rewrites: "You should try to make it better, but if you can’t make it better, you shouldn’t make it worse.


I remember being the only person who didn’t like it when it was new. Seeing it again, 20 years later, I still see it as flawed, but great, as well. The problem, and it’s a serious one, is that the climax throws away every brilliant thing that leads up to it. But until that climax, it’s one of the great westerns.

Clint Eastwood (who also directed) stars as William Muny, a once-horrible killer who gave up that life when he married a good woman. Now he’s a widower, a pig farmer, a tea-totaler, and a father of two young children. Desperate for money, he sets out with two companions on one more job: to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute, and now have a price on their head.

The picture is very much a critique and attack on the conventional western. People die badly. The picture makes abundantly clear that gunfights aren’t clear, and the winner isn’t the fastest draw, but the most cunning, the most aggressive, or the most lucky.

For most of the running time, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Everything falls into place–script, acting, sound, the aggressively not beautiful photography. It all comes together to say that the western as we know it is not only a lie, but a harmful one.

Then, at the end, it just blows it, violating everything that has gone before. I suppose a realistic ending, and one that would have fit into the film’s themes, would not have been as commercially successful.

The festival screened Unforgiven off of a Blu-ray disc, which is acceptable but not ideal. Since the film was shot in ‘scope, the Blu-ray was letterboxed. The image was considerably smaller than a scope 35mm print or DCP.

SFIFF Thursday: French Comedy and Irish Animation

I didn’t hit two jackpots at the San Francisco International Film Festival yesterday, as I did on Wednesday. But I enjoyed what I saw.

B The Intouchables
I can’t really complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowd pleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing the_intouchablesfriendship between a wealthy paraplegic–paralyzed from the neck down–and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza. The movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life. It stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma. It’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Worse, it at times get uncomfortably close to magic negro mythology, and the "crisss" that ends the second act (all commercial movies have a crisis at the end of the second act) is utterly pointless and unbelievable. On the other hand, the first two acts are, if obvious, very entertaining.

I saw the last festival screening of The Intouchables (and the best; as I understand it; at the first screening there were no subtitles). The film will open in the States in late May.

David OReilly Says Something
I went into this presentation without ever having seen any of this young, Irish animator’s work. An Internet sensation, makes makes short, inexpensive cartoons that can be grotesque, poignant, and very funny–often all at once.  You should check david_oreilly_external_worldout his work.

And don’t worry about seeing it on a computer. As OReilly pointed out from the stage, these shorts were never meant for the big screen.

Amongst the cartoons screened were the crudely-made yet sweet and sad "Please Say Something," which follows a relationship (a marriage?) between what appear to be a cat and a mouse. "The External World," my favorite of shorts, is pretty much indescribable. It includes the world’s worst piano teacher, cute little creatures eating ice cream (at least I hope it’s ice cream), a deadly Frisbee, and a surprisingly realistically animated cat. (Cats turn up in a lot of OReilly’s movies.)

In between the shorts, OReilly and festival programmer Sean Uyehara discussed his work, followed by Q&A with the audience. (I asked about that realistic cat.)david_oreilly_interview

Among the revelations:

  • He created his sole feature, The Agency, in one week with the use of a web site that automatically creates very crude animation. He described it as as "terrible."
  • He grew up next door to an animation studio, and started working there at a very young age. "Everyone was terrified about CG, so I taught myself that. I was the nerdiest."
  • "You really have to be tripping balls to enjoy it."
  • On making a living: "It’s a patchwork. I’ll never be a millionaire."

What’s Screening: April 27 – May 3

The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through the week, but the Tiburon Intl. Film Festival ends tonight. I’ve placed my festival recommendations and warnings at the end of this newsletter.

Man of Aran, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (although this is a talkie), Sunday, 4:00. Early documentarian Robert Flaherty’s third feature (his first was Nanook of the man_of_aranNorth) examines the people living on a small, rugged island off the coast of Ireland. I saw it on public television about 40 years ago, and barely remember it. But I do remember being impressed, if only for the difficulty of bringing early sound movie equipment to such a remote and forbidding location. Also on the program: How the Myth was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Both films will be introduced by W. Jack Coogan of the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center.

Bringing Up Baby, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie stars bringing_up_babybehaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, a frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard). on a double bill with a lesser-known Hawks work, Come and Get It.

Notes on an American Film Director at Work: Martin Scorsese, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30. Jonas Mekas followed Scorsese for a week during production of The Departed. This is the result. I haven’t seen it.

B Blackmail, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Hitchcock’s first talkie was alsoblackmail his last silent –making two versions was common practice in 1929. I’ve seem both and the silent one (which the museum is screening) is better. A young woman commits an indiscretion, putting her in a situation where she has to kill a man in self defense. A witness sees this act as a ticket to comfort. This is Hitchcock in an incubator, preparing to blossom a few years later into the master of suspense. By the way, am I the only one who thinks Donald Calthrop, who plays the blackmailer, is a dead ringer for Kenneth Branagh? Jon Mirsalis will tickle the piano keys while Alfred Hitchcock tickles your nerves.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A By the Fire, Kabuki, Sunday, 3:00 and Wednesday, 3:00. So sad. This heart-breaking work from Chile starts out simply examining a middle-aged couple’s daily beside_the_firelife. Daniel and Alejandra are poor but not desperate, and they share a deep, loving, empathetic, and passionate relationship. But as Alejandra’s health worsens, By the Fire slowly becomes a study of a man watching over his wife’s death. He puts on a stoic face, but you can see that he’s torn apart inside, both by the increased responsibility of attending to her needs and the fear of losing the person he loves. Writer/director Alejandro Fernández Almendras lets the story tell itself visually, in a loose, unhurried way. A real treasure.

A Guilty, Kabuki, Friday, 12 noon. Overnight, Alain Marécaux’s life became a nightmare. Police arrested him and his wife for raping children and running a child prostitution racket. Despite a complete lack ofguilty_thumb physical evidence and contradicting testimony from the accusers, he spent two years in prison and had his life ruined before finally being exonerated. That’s the true story. Guilty dramatically recreates this story from Marécaux’s point of view (he worked as a technical advisor on the film and apparently had veto power over its contents). The result is intense, harrowing, and frightening. Despite the help of a talented and caring attorney, Marécaux is at the mercy of a young judge determined to find him guilty no matter the facts. A very powerful film and a strong indictment of the French legal system.

Kanbar Award and Unforgiven, Kabuki, Saturday, 12:00. This year, the festival’s screenwriting life-achievement award goes to David Webb Peoples, author of Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys. After an on-stage interview, the festival will screen People’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. When the film came out 20 years ago, I felt like I was the only person who didn’t like it. Maybe I’ll like it better the second time around.

A- Oslo, August 31, SF Film Society Cinema, Friday, 9:15. Anders, a recovering drug  addict living in a clinic in the country, gets a day’s leave to return to Oslo for a job interview. The trip will also give him a chance to catch oslo_august_31up with some friends. But he feels lost, has no idea how to reconnect with the outside world in a safe way, and suffers from constant temptation. Over the course of the day and night, his story moves from difficult but hopeful to harrowing and depressing. Filmmaker Joachim Trier takes us on a journey into Anders’ world and, even scarier, his mind. It’s one thing to read about drug addiction. Oslo, August 31makes you feel the strain of wavering between a difficult recovery and a lifelong disaster.

B+ House by the River, Castro, Saturday, 4:00. A struggling novelist and all-around cad (Louis Hayward) attempts to rape his maid and accidentally kills her.house_by_riverThen he tricks his decent and semi-crippled brother (Lee Bowman) into helping him dump the body. Fritz Lang was a master of film noir (would film noir even exist without M?), and you can see that in this low-budget thriller. The story centers on the conflict between the brothers–one reacting with moral horror and the other seemingly beyond such feelings, and both worried about being caught. Jane Wyatt plays the writer’s initially loving wife, who begins to suspect that something is wrong before it becomes clear just how wrong everything is. House by the River screens as part of the tribute to this year’s Mel Novikoff Award winner, Pierre Rissient, who helped rediscover this minor work or a major filmmaker.

Quadrophenia, Castro, Saturday, 10:30. Pete Townsend and The Who’s other rock opera, Quadrophenia (the album, not this film) was often treated as a second-ran after Tommy. But in many ways, it’s the superior work. Franc Roddam’s film adaptation is an entirely different beast. Not an opera or a musical, it’s a straight-up drama about the album’s main character–a rebellious teenage boy caught up in the Mod vogue of the mid-1960s, and possibly losing his mind. The Who’s original songs act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the story. I haven’t seen Quadrophenia in over 30 years; I remember liking it, but not intensely.

C- Golden Slumbers, SF Film Society Cinema, Saturday, 9:00; Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 6:30; Kabuki, Thursday, 5:00. The Cambodian film industry was only 15 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over the country andgolden_slumbers closed it down. Few filmmakers and no movies survived the four-year genocide. That’s a great story, but Davy Chou manages to make it all but lifeless in this dull documentary. He devotes most of the running time to the nostalgic reverie of former filmmakers and fans, with occasional studies of former theaters and modern recreations of lost scenes. None of this is shot or edited in a compelling way. In the final third, some of the subjects talk about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge, which is far more compelling, but still badly presented. One big question is never even considered: What happened to the Cambodian film industry after Pol Pot, and why didn’t any of these people take part in it?

A+ The Third Man, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in thirdmanimpoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and newly dead. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. This screening is a tribute to Bingham Ray, who died earlier this year only months after his appointment as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society.