A Clichéd Drama & a Moving Documentary: My SFFilm Thursday

Here’s what I saw Thursday at the San Francisco International Film Festival:

The Hero

I caught this Sam Elliott vehicle at a matinee at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. I felt it was about time that someone built a movie around Elliott. Now someone needs to make a good one.

My problem with The Hero is that it’s so much like every other drama about an old man. The only saving grace is Sam Elliott in the leading role – an aging western star reduced to doing radio commercials and facing his mortality. As the movie begins, a doctor gives him the bad news: cancer – and a particularly bad type. He keeps the disastrous diagnosis to himself, hiding it from his best friend (who’s also his pot dealer), his ex-wife, and the daughter who clearly can’t stand him. Then (surprise, surprise) he meets a much younger woman and the two fall in love. Elliott has one of the great faces, and his acting chops are superb, but The Hero is way too predictable.

One nice touch: That best friend is a Buster Keaton fan, and in one scene they watch The General.

I give it a C+.

I attended the last screening of the film at the Festival. There was no Q&A after the screening.

Half-Life in Fukushima & Valentina

For my evening movie, I visited the Yerba Buena Screening Room, which I’d never visited before. This is not to be confused with the Yerba Buena Theater.

I was there to see a documentary. I got two of them. the first was a short, Valentina.

This whimsical doc looks at the lives of a couple in a remote part of Mexico. They herd goats, and one of those goats has become more pet than livestock. The movie was sweet and funny.

The main film, Half-Life in Fukushima, was much more serious. I’d call it the feature film, except that it ran only slightly more than an hour.

Six years after the Fukushima disaster, 100,000 people are still displaced. Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi’s atmospheric documentary looks at one of them, elderly farmer Naoto Matsumura, as he ventures into his still radioactive home and neighborhood. He feeds cows who have no financial worth. He cleans his deserted house. He talks, off camera, about his fear and whether he should ever bring his son to the strange ghost town that was once his home. In one strange scene, he stops his car at a red light and waits for green, even though there is no one anywhere near the vicinity.

Without horrific images, troubling stats, or political grandstanding, Half-Life shows you what a nuclear power meltdown can do.

I give this powerful documentary an A.

After the films, Half-Life co-director Mark Olexa answered questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • Matsumura’s behavior symbolized how human beings can carry on.
  • He’s given a lot of interviews, and he’s quite used to the media. But we wanted to film him not speaking. We told him “We want to show who you are when we’re not here.”
  • We visited the area with him twice, each time for three weeks.
  • We wore masks when it was windy. Most of the radiation is now underground, so you really don’t want to swallow any dirt.
  • More than 100,000 refugees have been living in containers for six years. Now the government wants them to leave. Many have no choice but to go back to Fukushima. I don’t think any want to go back.

Then Ben Guez, the director of Valentina, got his chance. Again, these highlights are edited:

  • We integrated ourselves with the couple. We brought food when we came and became friends. They didn’t want us to leave.
  • Will the goats be slaughtered? Most of the male goats get taken away periodically. The couple hide in their home when this happens. They don’t eat goat.

You have two more chances to catch these documentaries before the festival ends:

Note: I’ve added the name of Valentina’s director after getting that information.