Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are four films I’ve already seen that are coming to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A Indignation

Already screened at San Francisco International Film Festival.
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, in the early 1950s, 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.

  • Rafael, Friday, August 5, 6:30. The film will also open a regular engagement in San Francisco the same day.

B+ The Last Laugh

Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary asks an interesting and difficult question: Can we joke about the Holocaust? Quick answer: Yes, if you’re Jewish, and if the joke is very funny. The professional comics interviewed include Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, his son Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mel Brooks–the creator of The Producers has a lot to say on the subject. Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, not a professional but with a healthy sense of humor, deservedly gets more screen time than anyone else. Intriguing and funny while bringing up questions of remembrance, respect, and censorship.

The film has no connection to F. W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, The Last Laugh.

  • Roda, Saturday, July 30, 7:10
  • Castro, Sunday, July 31, 2:55

B The Freedom to Marry

Already screened at Frameline. This documentary follows the struggle for marriage equality in both the courts and public opinion. As one would expect considering the outcome that we all know, it’s upbeat and inspiring. The problem is that it sticks almost exclusively to the last weeks before the Supreme Court decision. The years of struggle that preceded the big Washington moment are walked over quickly and without depth.

What makes this film Jewish? Some of the most important leaders in the movement, and thus the heroes of the story, are Jewish.

  • Castro, Friday, July 29, 3:50
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 8:35

C+ The Tenth Man

Opening Night!
Ariel, an accountant living in New York, returns to his Buenos Aires home to help his Orthodox father’s Jewish charity. But his father (who is only a voice on the phone) keeps sending him on strange errands and wild-goose chases. Meanwhile a beautiful redhead–an beautiful and very religious redhead–seems to be spending a lot of time with Ariel. That potentially funny plot never really gets off the ground in this badly-paced, occasionally funny comedy.

I’ll be previewing more of these movies in the near future.

The SF Jewish Film Festival turns 36 (double chai)

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival turns 36 this year with 68 films (more than 50 of them features) from 16 countries. The films and presentations include comedies from Argentina and California, several coming-of-age dramas–including one about an Iranian family in Israel, a new TV series from the creator of Arab Labor, a Freedom of Expression award for Norman Lear, and documentaries about Holocaust humor, gay marriage, Goebbels’ secretary, the Israeli peace movement, comedian Robert Klein, and Leonard Nimoy.

The number 36 is significant in Judaism, because it’s a double 18. The number 18 is significant in Judaism because it’s associated with the Hebrew word for life, chai. (It’s spelled, but not pronounced, like the Indian tea. The ch is pronounced as in Bach.)

I’m Jewish, which pretty much makes this my favorite of the Bay Area’s many identity film festivals. Here are some festival screenings and events that look intriguing to me:

  • Freedom of Expression Award: This year the award goes to television pioneer
    Norman Lear, the man who brought controversy to prime time as the
    creator of All in the Family. The event will include a screening of the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.
  • The Writer: Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Arab creator of Arab Labor has a new TV series–this time a drama. As with his sitcom, it focuses on an Arab writer with an identity crisis.

  • The Last Laugh: Can we laugh at the holocaust? Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and other Jewish comedians consider the topic.
  • Sand Storm: A family relationship drama set in a Bedouin village in Israel.
  • For The Love of Spock: Director Adam Nimoy examines the life of his father, who created one of the most iconic characters in TV history, Mr. Spock.
  • Origin of Violence: A historian studying the Holocaust comes upon a photo suggesting something hidden in his family’s history.

I’ll tell you more about movies I have seen after I’ve seen enough of them.

June Film Festivals

I don’t have to tell you about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; I already have. But here are two other festivals coming up next month.

SF DocFest (June 2-16)

If you prefer your cinema without fiction, this is the festival for you. Here you’ll find documentaries about East LA, LSD, two-dollar bills, Internet sex workers, and, of course, music. I haven’t seen anything in this festival, so I have no opinions.

DocFest opens with a surfing documentary called It Ain’t Pretty. Don’t expect Frankie and Annette, or even bikinis. These are Northern California surfers, which means that they wear wetsuits. And they’re all women.

It Ain’t Pretty

The closing-night show, Silicon Cowboys, is about a piece of tech history that only old-timers like me remember: the fall of the once important Compaq Computers.

Frameline (June 16 -26)

Now in its 40th year, the world’s oldest LGBTQ film festival is not about a particular type of film, such as a documentary (although it certainly has plenty of them). It’s about a particular type of person—the sort who tends to throw North Carolina into a hissy fit.

Again, I haven’t seen anything in the festival. But here are some that intrigue me enough to make me want to catch them:

The Intervention: This American relationship comedy involves a group of friends trying to convince an unhappily married couple to divorce. But some of the interventionists need their own interventions.

Summertime: Politics and love intertwine in this French romance set in the 1970s. A closeted farm girl goes to Paris and falls in love with a feminist.


The Freedom to Marry: A documentary that we all know has a happy ending.

Being 17: Another French film, about two very different teenage boys forced to live under the same roof. Thing’s get complicated.

Upcoming classics

With the San Francisco International Film Festival over, I finally have time to write about some other promising upcoming events.


This four-day festival (May 13 – 16) looks at 12 films from the middle of the 20h century that helped prepare the world for arthouse cinema. Programmer Don Malcolm (The French Had a Name for It) has put together six double bills, each one with its own theme.

For instance, Malcolm has titled the opening night double bill of The Forgotten Ones and Forbidden Games  “Children in Peril.” Sunday afternoon, you can rediscover “Forgotten Comic Masters” in The Passionate Thief and The Sheep Has Five Legs.

Clearly, these are not the arthouse classics we all know. You won’t find The Seventh Seal here, but you will find Torment, a 1944 coming-of-age drama written by Ingmar Bergman before he became a director. I haven’t seen a single movie on this list, and only recognize a handful of them by title.

UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016

This Pacific Film Archive series isn’t really a festival. Nine films spaced across six weeks isn’t an intensive experience. But it promises to be a fun one, and probably an educational one, showing films that Cal’s Los Angeles campus has restored or preserved over the years.

The series starts with one of Mary Pickford’s last silents, My Best Girl. preceded by two early Pickford shorts, one directed by D. W. Griffith; the other by Thomas Ince. Judith Rosenberg will accompany all three movies on piano.

I’m particularly eager to see The Big Broadcast, which
I think I saw ages ago–it’s hard to remember with these early 30s review features. Its thin plot is just an excuse to showcase Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Burns and Allen, the Mill Brothers, and I’m not sure who else. Bing Crosby carries the very light plot.

I know I’ve seen The Long Voyage Home, John Ford’s follow-up to Stagecoach, and his second film with John Wayne. But I haven’t seen this story of merchant sailors on the big screen. I hope to get my chance June 19.

The PFA has other interesting series coming up. The Mexican Film Noir series starts today. Directors Wim Wenders and Seijun Suzuki get their own series. There’s also an Early Music Film Festival which is not, of course, actually a festival, but should still be worth catching.

San Francisco Intl. Film Fest previews

Here are six films I’ve previewed for this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. I’m listing them in order from best to worse, although they’re all at least pretty good.

A Leaf BlowerA scene from Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal's LEAF BLOWER will play at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5,2016. Finding keys in a huge pile of leaves is a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure which huge pile is the right one. The task is near impossible if you’re a teenage boy getting help from two other teenage boys, all struggling with ranging hormones and short attention spans. Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal and his collaborators turn this everyday annoyance into a touching and frequently hilarious comedy. The laughs become rare near the end, but the story holds up without them.[/caption]

A- The Islands and the Whales
The people of the Faroe Islands (in the North Atlantic) hunt most of what they eat–seabirds, fish, and whales. In fact, whaling plays an important cultural role there. But now they’re suffering from the effects of over-hunting, international condemnation from animal rights groups, and worst of all, high concentrations of mercury in their diet (that last one isn’t even their fault). Against breathtaking scenery, director Mike Day provides a sympathetic view of a culture fighting inevitable change. The film made me open my eyes a bit; the people I would naturally see as heroes–Greenpeace activists–come off here as sanctimonious jerks. Warning: This documentary contains a great deal of animal slaughter and butchering.

B+ The Innocents
Innocents_01Stern, rule-based, shameful, and obedience-demanding religion comes up against basic human values in this drama set in a Polish nunnery only months after the end of World War II. The nuns were raped by Russian soldiers and are now experiencing a rash of new-born babies. A young, French doctor does what she can to help them, against orders from her superiors, and finds she must fight with the extremely strict mother superior, as well. The story becomes a battle between grim-faced, unbending religion and humanism–both secular and spiritual.

B+ The Fixer
The_Fixer_01Osman (Dominic Rains) was a fixer in his native Afghanistan; more than just a translator for Western journalists, he smoothed over cultural differences and made sure his charges didn’t offend people. Now he’s in rural Sonoma County and could use a fixer of his own. He sets out to become a crime reporter and is soon over his head with illegal activities, theatrical hippies, and possible murders. But how do you solve a murder mystery when you don’t really understand the culture? An enjoyable puzzle with thrills that sneak up on you.

  • Castro, Sunday, April 24, 8:30

B Five Nights In Maine
Five_Nights_in_Maine_01The sudden death of his wife in a traffic accident sends Sherwin (David Oyelowo) into a deep and alcoholic depression. To climb out of it, he drives to rural, coastal Maine to visit his mother-in-law (Dianne Wiest). But she’s cold, remote, and dying of cancer. Rosie Perez rounds out the excellent cast. But great acting can only go so far with a merely adequate script–even when photographed in front of beautiful scenery. On a positive note, this is one of the few American films with a black lead in a role that wasn’t about him being black.

B Check It
Check_It_03Life isn’t easy in America’s inner cities if you’re poor, young, black, and gay. This documentary follows the fortunes of several members of a gay gang in the streets of D.C. It began, as all street gangs do, as a form of self-defense, which they sorely needed. Check It doesn’t ignore the aspects of gang life that scare people–fights, purse snatching, and in this gang in particular, prostitution. But you can’t help liking some of the kids. The film gives only slight hope that a few of the gang members will move on to a better life.

Silent Film Fest Preview

Wednesday evening, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced its 2016 schedule. And as fans have come to expect, it will be an intense experience. In the course of three full days plus an opening night, they will screen 19 different programs, all with live music. (There’s also an opening night party.)

Nine different musical groups will perform, including many we’ve come to know and love over the years, including Donald Sosin, The Matti Bye Ensemble, and my favorites, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Among the newcomers is the Oakland Symphony’s Michael Morgan, conducting musicians and singers from his orchestra.

Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan

You’ll need a lot of stamina to catch everything. Consider Saturday’s schedule. The first program of the day, The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations, starts at 10:00AM. The last, The Last Warning, starts (not ends, but starts) at 10:00PM. Friday will be a bit easier; the last film (Behind the Door) starts at an almost reasonable 9:30.

My stamina isn’t what it used to be. The Last Warning and Behind the Door are the only two films I’m planning to miss.

This year’s festival has a definite feminist vibe. Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem is a suffragette drama from 1917. The program Girls Will Be Boys will present two short comedies about women dressing up as men (think Some Like it Hot reversed, only made first).

Mothers of Men or Every Womans Problem

I’ve only seen three of the features the festival will be screening, including the opening night film, Beggars of Life, which the Festival screened back in 2007. When I saw it back then, I wrote that this story of hobos “almost vibrates with romantic realism.” It stars Louise Brooks as a woman on the run (she killed her would-be rapist in self-defense) and Wallace Beery as a hobo king.

I’ve also seen Within Our Gates, but only on television. Oscar Micheaux’s answer to The Birth of a Nation is a daring and important film. Unfortunately, Micheaux let his message get in the way of his storytelling, causing the movie to jump around making various points. But at times it’s brilliant.

The third feature I’ve seen is Nanook of the North. Often called the first feature-length documentary (it isn’t), Nanook brings us into an Inuit culture that was disappearing as the film was being made. Shot over a period of years, it’s an amazing document, and a unique portrait of a family. In 1973, I had the pleasure of watching Nanook on an original, nitrate, 35mm print–the only silent I’ve ever seen on nitrate.

The Battle of the Century

But I don’t think anything on the program excites me like The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations. The Battle of the Century is a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler that–until very recently–was missing the entire second reel. To make matters worse, that missing reel contained what many believe is the biggest and best pie fight ever filmed. The reel has been found and the movie restored. It will screen along with other recently-restored comic shorts, including two of Buster Keaton’s.

Also of interest: Varieté and The Italian Straw Hat–two European classics that I have not yet seen. With my fascination with old film technologies, I can’t wait for Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

And this year’s free Amazing Tales from the Archives program will discuss yet another restoration of Napoleon, this time apparently without Kevin Brownlow’s involvement.

SF International Film Fest Announced

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival was officially launched with a press conference and the opening of its website this morning (Tuesday). The festival will run from April 21 to May 5 at the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, but mostly has several theaters in the Mission, including the Roxie and the New Mission.

The move to the Mission is the biggest news about this year’s festival. I’ve already discussed the new location, so I’ll skip that here, except for one update: In the previous article, I expressed concern that none of the theaters in the mission have a capacity equivalent to the Kabuki’s Theater 1, which seats 497 (I thought it held about twice that when I wrote that article, but I was proved wrong). The Victoria–one of the Festival’s Mission theaters–seats almost 450, so the problem isn’t serious.

Some highlights:

  • The Festival opens with the Jane Austin adaptation, Love & Friendship.
  • The Centerpiece film is James Schamus’ directorial debut, Indignation. Schamus is one of the most interesting people working in American independent film these days (if you’re an Ang Lee fan, you’re also a James Schamus fan; you just don’t know it), and I’m eager to see what he will do with this Philip Roth adaptation. It screens April 30 at the Victoria Theatre.
  • The Irving M. Levin Directing Award (AKA the Award Formerly named for Akira Kurosawa) goes this year to Mira Nair–which makes her the first woman to get the Directing award, and first woman of color to win any award at this Festival. Festival director Noah Cowan admitted that “It’s about time.” Nair’s event on April 24 will include a screening of Monsoon Wedding.
  • This year’s Mel Novikoff Award, which annually goes to a person or an institution that keeps the flame of cinema appreciation alive, goes to two companies that often work together: Janus Films and The Criterion Collection. The April 30 afternoon event will include a new restoration of the Coen brothers’ first feature, Blood Simple.
  • The Persistence of Vision Award will go to the British company Aardman Animation, creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. The May 1, 5:00 screening will include various short subjects.
  • This year’s State of the Cinema speech will be given by Wesley Morris, a former Bay Area film critic who is now the New York Time’s Critic at Large. He plans to “argue for the radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies.”
  • VR Day will look at how new technologies create new forms of cinema.
  • And speaking of technology, Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, screens April 23 at the Castro.
  • The Festival closes May 5 with The Bandit, a documentary about the making of Smokey and the Bandit.

This year, the festival will screen 99 feature-length films and 74 shorts. Clearly, none of us will see all of them. But I’ll see what I can, both during and before the festival, and tell you about what I see.


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