Thursday: The last day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two movies on the last day of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. The first one was directed by someone named Ross. The second by someone named Moss. Neither of them was a loss.

Frank & Lola

I saw this at the New Mission, and thankfully, it was in the big, downstairs Theater 1.

Director or Programming Rachel Rosen welcomed us to “the last matinee of the festival.” She explained that writer/director Matthew Ross was in town, but under the weather. There was no Q&A.

Frank & Lola is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, so I have to keep my review short:

This psychological mystery and romantic drama examines an excessively jealous man. It starts with a very hot sex scene–except that Frank (Michael Shannon) feels a little reluctant about starting a relationship. He worries about being hurt. He’s also naturally paranoid, and can’t stand to see Lola (Imogen Poots) even talking to another man. On the other hand, Lola really does seem to be cheating on him. His search to undercover Lola’s secrets takes him from their home in Las Vegas–where he’s an upcoming chef–to Paris and some exceedingly seedy pleasures, and then into his own deep fears.

I give the film an A-. It will likely get a theatrical release.

Closing Night: The Bandit

I went to the Castro for the official closing night screening of The Bandit (although five other movies started screening after this one).

After introductions by Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the director of the night’s film, Jesse Moss, we watched The Bandit.

Allegedly about the making of the 1977 surprise box office hit, Smokey and the Bandit, this documentary is really a platonic, touching love story between two very macho men–Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. Reynolds, of course, was a top movie star. Hal Needham was a top stuntman. He was also Reynolds’ stuntman, until he found a new career by directing Smokey. The two men complimented each other professionally, and they were the best of friends. Even when they were rich, they shared a house for eleven years.

When Needham got the idea for Smokey and the Bandit, and decided to direct it, Reynolds used his star power to get it funded, albeit at a very low budget. The studio thought it would tank, and it did just that in the big cities. But it was a huge hit in small towns, especially in the south.

Bandit doesn’t cover the making of the movie all that much. It shows us a brief scene about shooting a stunt or arguing with Universal executives, than it cuts away to something else in the long relationship between these two men. Moss has made a charming, sympathetic, enjoyable portrait of two very successful good old boys. But both Reynolds and Needham come off as near perfect; the lack of warts makes me a big suspicious.

I give the movie a B+.

By the way, Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t the only surprise hit to come out the last week of May, 1977. Star Wars premiered two days before Smokey. The Bandit doesn’t mention this.

After the movie, Moss and two of his assistants (I didn’t get their names) came on stage for a Q&A. Rosen moderated. Some highlights:

  • On Reynold’s participation in the documentary: When we went to his house, it was a little like Sunset Blvd. Would I end up dead in his pool? He’s an incredible movie star but he’s disappeared. But Burt was surprisingly open. Really cooperative.
  • Needham’s widow told us that Hal hated documentaries. I wanted to make one that Hal would enjoy.
  • Why Sally Fields wasn’t interviewed (she and Reynold became an item while making Smokey): She works a lot. She just works. We weren’t able to talk to her. And I was much more interested in the relationship with Hal.
  • Burt Reynolds as an actor: Look at Boogle Nights or Deliverance. He really was capable of a great performance.
  • I just wanted to make a fun film with lots of car crashes. It’s a buddy movie, it’s an action comedy. I wanted to see this film.

The Bandit is not likely to get a theatrical release. But Moss promised that “It will be available on the small screen.”

I briefly attended the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. It was okay.

Visiting North Korea and Afghanistan: Wednesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I’ve really come to hate the upstairs theaters at the New Mission. The number of decent seats are in the single digits–and for the festival, most of them are reserved. The front row is so close it can induce headaches–even for me. If you don’t want to sit that close, and you weren’t one of the first people in the theater, you have to sit way to the side and watch the screen at an extreme angle.

I saw two San Francisco International Film Festival movies Wednesday, both in upstairs theaters.

B+ Under the Sun

Associate Programmer Audrey Chang introduced the film. She explained that the North Korean government commissioned this documentary, intended to present the wonderful life of a “typical” family, complete with two adorable daughters. But the government didn’t have control over the editing, and was not happy with the final result.

The Ukrainian director, Vitaly Mansky, was not able to attend. There was no Q&A.

Under the Sun is on the Festival’s Hold Review list, which means that I must review it in 100 words or less. Here goes:

Of course the people of Pyongyang look happy and prosperous. The government controlled what the filmmakers could shoot and told the subjects what to say and how to say it. But once out of North Korea and into the editing room, Director Vitaly Mansky shows the fakery. He left in footage that shows how everything was staged. We see the government handler reminding people to smile broader. We see multiple takes–with people spouting increasingly higher made-up statistics. He changes people’s careers. But he makes the point too many times; the film could have been 15 minutes shorter.

It will screen again Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive, 6:30. There’s also a good chance that it will get a theatrical release.

B- Neither Heaven nor Earth

Another Hold Review film that I have to review in 100 words or less:

This war movie follows a small group of French soldiers trying to hold onto a piece of Afghanistan. They have a difficult, mutually suspicious relationship with the locals. But things get jumpy when two men disappear without clues or explanation. Then others disappear. The disappearances seem impossible, and particularly bother the commanding officer, who insists on bringing his soldiers back dead or alive. The action sequences are suspenseful and well-made. Some of the French characters are fleshed out (but not the Afghans). And the disappearance mystery is a real puzzle. But the ending is a complete fail.

There were no filmmakers available for Q&A, which was too bad, because the whole audience wanted to ask one very big question.

I saw the last screening at the festival, but it may get an American theatrical release.

Salt Flats and Music: Tuesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two films, both documentaries, at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Tuesday. One was about the world coming to a previously isolated stretch of Bolivia. The other was about music of the world.

B+ Salero

Before the screening, Director Mike Plunkett told us that the film was “a passion project of mine. It took six years to complete.”

This exceptionally beautiful documentary looks at change from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want it, although the film itself seems neutral on the subject. Moises Chambi Yucra lives in the small town of Colchani , next to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A husband and father, he’s harvested salt all of his life. He cannot imagine another life for himself or his family.

But Lithium has been found in massive amounts in the area–enough to make Bolivia a significantly richer country. What’s more, the government is taking steps to bring tourism to Colchani. Moises life can no longer go on as it was.

Plunkett feels considerable empathy for Moises, but he also shows the considerable advantages that come from the changes–advantages that appear to be helping the people who live there. The film contains some of the most mouth-watering images seen at this year’s festival.

Plunkett did a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after it started, but I caught this comment:

“I was really just struck by the landscape. If the landscape could have a voice, it would say something.”

I saw Salero at the Roxie. It was the last screening of the film at the festival. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to get a theatrical release.

A- The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Before the screening, director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) told us that he was delighted to be in the New Mission‘s Theater 1. “I think I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 3 here.”

Since this film will get a theatrical release, I can only give a very short review here:

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma took his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created the Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them. This documentary follows Ma and other musicians as they work, play, and talk about their lives. Many came from repressive regimes and war-torn lands, and their stories are often tragic. But the beauty of making music keeps them going. The film’s one problem: Not enough music.

After the screening, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights:

  • How the project began: It’s one of those instances of jumping off a cliff. Yo-Yo called and wanted to talk about filming a concert. He started telling off-color jokes. I said “I’ll follow you with a camera everywhere.”
  • What role does culture serve in society? In the West, we tend to take culture for granted. It’s discounted because it’s a soft influence.
  • We started talking to Yo-Yo. Then we started talking to the ensemble, and we saw how much material there was.
  • On the film’s visual style, which involved a lot of moving, swooping camerawork: Early on, we decided the camera should float amongst these cultures.
  • Advice for new filmmakers: Get good sound. It’s the most overlooked thing in film. If you have great sound you can make a great film.
  • It’s become so much easier to make films because of the technology.

The film will screen once more for the Festival, Thursday, 4:00 at the Pacific Film Archive. But don’t worry if you miss it. It will open in Bay Area theaters June 17.

Live Music for the Undead: Monday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only went to one San Francisco International Film Festival event on Monday, and that was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 classic, Vampyre, with musical accompaniment by Mercury Rev and Simon Raymonde. It was at the Castro.

Vampyre belongs on any list of great horror films. Todd Brown’s Dracula, made the previous year, is stagy and dull by comparison. And simplistic. In Vampyre, you’re not always sure who is a vampire and who isn’t. They aren’t sure themselves.

The story isn’t much, but the individual sequences are amazing. There’s the young woman attacked by a vampire who–in an extreme closeup–seems to look just a bit hungry as she watches her friend. And the funeral procession and burial, viewed from the point of view of the corpse–who is also the film’s hero and is still alive and walking about.

Most early talkies don’t get much beyond photographing people talking. But Vampyre feels very much like an expressionistic silent film, telling its story in pantomime, camera movement, special effects, and the written word. The dialog is scarce.

In Monday night’s presentation, we heard no dialog at all. The soundtrack was off, so as to not interfere with the musical accompaniment. The print (which I’m pretty sure was digital) had English subtitles, so we still knew what people were saying in the rare moments when they were saying anything.

But these subtitles didn’t describe sound effects. When the hero asks a man if he heard a dog barking, and the man claims not to have heard it, we tend to agree with the man, because we haven’t heard it either.

Mercury Rev’s score was loud, driving, powerful, percussion-heavy art rock. But it lacked subtlety and variety. Loving it at first, I found it boring by the end. Not every scene calls for thumping drums.

The experience made me want to see Vampyre again, this time with its original soundtrack. That shouldn’t be difficult. There are at least two streams of it on Youtube, and another on Hulu.

Note: I have altered the article, correcting some typos.

Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught two movies Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

B Cameraperson

I caught this one at the Victoria Theatre.

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has been shooting documentaries for decades. The films she’s lensed include Citizenfour and Farenheit 911. Now she’s gathered much of what she shot, including home movies, into a montage of her career and–to a lesser extent–of her private life. The film’s best when it puts human faces into the far-too-many horrible atrocities of recent history, and when they remind us that a human being is behind the camera–there’s a great moment when Johnson sneezes and the camera shakes. Often fascinating and moving, but sometimes repetitive and dull.

Johnson wasn’t available to attend the screening, but her long-time sound recorder, Wellington Bowler, and the film’s editor, Nels Bangerter, came onstage for Q&A with the audience.

Some highlights:

  • Before the screening, sound recordist Wellington came up to introduce the film. Someone in the audience had to yell “Speak into the mic!” He smiled, moved the microphone closer to lips, and confessed “I should know that.”
  • Bangerter on their working relationship: Wellington and Kristen have worked together for 20 years. When this film came to me it was several films. She had a pile of hard drives she’d collected with materials that she shot.
  • On shooting documentaries in places you don’t know well: We learned so much from drivers. The drivers gave us the narrative of what happened up to the very first day.
  • Kristen was interested in people knowing that she’s shooting.
  • If she sees a baby, she shoots the baby.

Cameraperson will screen again Tuesday, May 3, 8:30, at the New Mission. The picture is on the Festival’s Hold Review list, which means it has a good chance of getting a theatrical release.

D- Suite Armoricaine

I caught this one at the New Mission‘s big Theater 1.

What’s worse than a slow, aimless character study with characters who are not worth studying? One that runs more than two and a half hours.

Suite Armoricaine follows a schoolyear in the life of two people. At first, they seem reasonably interesting. Françoise, an art historian, returns to her Brittany roots and starts teaching at the University of Rennes. She’s separating herself emotionally from the boyfriend she left behind in Paris. She’s also reconnecting with friends from her wilder youth.

Ion, a new student, seems a far more interesting character. He’s been raised by foster parents, and seems to be hiding something in his past. Then his homeless mother, whom he thought was dead, moves into his dorm room and brings her friends with her, turning his room into an impossible mess.

Does he call the campus police? Does he move into his girlfriend’s dorm? No. (He has a wonderful, blind girlfriend. Their relationship is the best thing in the movie.) He gives up the room and becomes homeless himself, living basically in the library. That’s when I lost most of my interest in Ion.

For the last 45 minutes or so, I kept hoping for a fadeout. When it finally happened, I was vastly relieved.

I did not stay for the Q&A with writer/director Pascale Breton.

This is the last screening of Suite Armoricaine at the festival. It will probably not get released in this country. Consider that a blessing.

Janus, Criterion, Coen Brothers, and James Schamus: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I started the day with Wesley Morris’ State of Cinema address. But as I’ve already written about that presentation, I’ll skip it here and go to the two other events I attended.

Mel Novikoff Award: An Afternoon with Janus Films & the Criterion Collection

Every year, the Festival gives the Mel Novikoff Award to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” This year, it went to two companies that often work together: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection.

The event happened at the Castro.

If you’re not familiar with them, Janus distributes classic films–mostly foreign–to theaters. Criterion brings classics and not-so-classic films to the home screen via DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming services. If you check out my Blu-ray reviews, you’ll find a lot of Criterion titles.

Much of what we take for granted on DVDs and Blu-rays today–extras, commentary tracks, carefully-created transfers, and presenting a film in its original aspect ratio–started with Criterion on Laserdisc.

On stage, film critic Scott Foundas interviewed Criterion’s Jonathan Turell and and Janus’ Peter Becker. Some highlights:

  • This idea that Criterion has come to play a role in canon creation is an accident. The result is people have started to think that way.
  • On working with major studios: We try to be an asset to the studios. We’ve been able to position ourselves has a way .
  • On their devotion to physical discs: I don’t think the beauty of it can go out of style.
  • Long ago, Turell showed Michael Powell a Laserdisc with one of the first commentaries–possibly King Kong. Powell exclaimed “What I could do with that technology if I were younger.” Then he did the first ever director commentary; it was for Black Narcissus.
  • They’re preparing to launch Filmstruck, a recently-announced streaming service that’s a joint venture between Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. “It’s built from the ground up and just for movies. And it’s wholly curated by us.”

The Novikoff Award presentation always includes a movie. This time, it was the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, which Criterion has just restored. So the Coen Brothers and the film’s cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld (now a director) came on stage and joined the conversation.

More highlights, all from the creators of Blood Simple:

  • What a relief to deal with people who understand what your movie is trying to do. It’s not about marketing the movie. It’s about presenting a movie in a particular way.
  • The first day of shooting was the first time we ever were on a movie set.
  • The Coen brothers raised money for Blood Simple marketing it as a splatter movie. “Well, we did have vomiting blood.”
  • M. Emmet Walsh was the only actor in the film that anyone would recognize. When asked to do something a little different “to humor me,” he responded “I’ve done this whole fucking movie to humor you.”
  • Sonnenfeld on shooting John Getz: We could never focus his face. Those in front of him were in focus, those in back of him were on focus. But he was never in focus.

Then we got to see Blood Simple.

The Coen Brothers’ first film shows a promise of what they’d become. An exceptionally dark, violent, gruesome, and funny noir, it tells a coherent story that is totally incoherent to the characters onscreen. You’ve got an adulterous couple (half of which is Frances McDormand in her first film role), a violently vengeful husband, and a private detective with less morals than your average snake (Walsh).

As I watched it, I kept seeing tropes that would reappear in Fargo. While it’s not quite Fargo material, it still earns a clear A-.

There was no audience Q&A. Too bad. I must have 50 questions for Criterion.

Centerpiece: Indignation

For my final event for the day, I went to the Victoria Theatre for the Centerpiece screening of James Schamus’ directorial debut, Indignation.

The film will get a theatrical release in the near future, so I’m not allowed to say more than 100 words about it now:

Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

I give it an A.

After the movie, Executive Director Noah Cowan presided over the Q&A with Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer/screenwriter and as the former head of Focus Features. Some comments:

  • On adapting a Phillip Roth book: He’s notoriously difficult to adapt, and I learned that the hard way. Empathy comes out of the brutality. You can’t get that kind of truth on film.
  • On Roth’s reaction: He did me the greatest favor. I sent him the screenplay before we started shooting. He refused to read it. that was the best thing he could do.
  • On why he waited so long to direct: I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Then I think: I could direct it, or Ang Lee could direct it.
  • I know it’s a miserably depressing movie, but I had a blast making it.
  • On directing for the first time: There were two things that were completely new. Where you put the camera, and working with actors.

Wesley Morris, Sidney Poitier, and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s State of the Cinema Address

Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Critic at Large for the New York Times, gave this year’s State of the Cinema Address. His theme: The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier. It was in the Victoria Theatre on Saturday afternoon, and it was wonderful.

Coming on stage in a snappy red suit, he warned that he would give spoilers for In the Heat of the Night. There really weren’t any. The identity of the murderer was not revealed in the clip shown.

“Why Poitier?” he rhetorically asked. “It occurred to me looking at the trajectory of racial climate, something is changing about how race is depicted in popular culture. Black people are talking to black people in the movies.” For that change, “Ground zero for a lot of how we think about race is Sidney Poitier.”

Morris proved to be a very funny, entertaining talker. He mused on the moral complexities of the upcoming Harriet Tubman $20 bill. “Do you pay your weed dealer with a Tubman? Or put Tubmans into a stripper’s G-string?”

He talked about the people who objected to LBJ’s depiction in Selma. “People were mad because they turned the white president into ‘the help.’ They didn’t make it a white savior movie.”

Poitier “was first. White liberals wanted him to be good. Blacks wanted him to win. Before the slap [see below], they needed a black actor.”

He talked and showed clips from two of his more important films–Lilies of the Field, for which he became the first non-white to win a leading-role Oscar, and In the Heat of the Night.

By the time of Lilies of the Field, “America was ready to let Poitier spend time with white women, but only if they were nuns.”

But the real shock came in 1967 with Heat of the Night. This was the film where Poitier slapped a white man–and one who very much needed slapping. Even today it’s a powerful moment in a film that for the most part hasn’t aged well.

He also talked about some of his early, bad movies. He had particular contempt for Band of Angels, which he called “really racist” as well as really bad. I have to admit some curiosity.

“”His job was to comfort white people into accepting being comfortable with black people.”

In the end, Morris summed up what Poitier meant. “What did we lose when we lost movies interested in dealing with race? A lot of his films weren’t that great, but they kept a conversation going.