2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WRAP-UP

The 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped up on May 8th with Chris Messina’s critically touted, “Alex of Venice.” This year’s fest program was seemingly rock solid (or else I’m getting better at picking movies). Almost everything I saw fell somewhere between great and fantastic, with only a couple of duds in the mix. So let’s get the bad out of the way first:

UGH:

“Ping Pong Summer” – I see what they tried to do there. People of a certain age (myself included) possess a degree of forgiving nostalgia over the beating the bully/overcoming impossible odds films of the nineteen hundred and eighties. I can’t say if “Better off Dead” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” are truly good films or if they’re just a comforting snapshot of my childhood. But to capture that vibe in a new film, you’re going to have to do a little better than “Ping Pong Summer.” It’s “Better off Dead” with a splash of “Vacation” thrown in. But it tries too hard and flounders too much.

“Standing Aside, Watching” – This painful film was billed as a western-style revenge picture. But it felt a lot more like a series of scenes competing for bleakness. If it’s meant to depict female empowerment, it has a funny way of showing it. Women get the short end of the stick (usually in the form of an unwanted penis) over and over again in this small, impoverished Greek town. The protagonist is kind of abusive herself, but that still doesn’t warrant the treatment she receives from the resident psycho misogynist. The title refers to the general attitude of the townspeople, who just “stand aside, watching” while bad things happen. They say this line over and over and over again, just in case you couldn’t glean the theme from context. 89 minutes that felt like an eternity.

EH:

“Palo Alto” – Like “Kids” and “Spring Breakers” before it, “Palo Alto” confirms parents’ worst fears about what their suburban teenagers are up to when they’re away from the watchful eyes of adults. They’re binge drinking, driving under the influence, screwing like rabbits and generally giving in to every awful whim that crosses their undeveloped brains. It doesn’t help that the adults who do pay attention to them only do so in order to take advantage of them. Perhaps it is an accurate depiction of modern youth, but it lacks the poetry and style of “Spring Breakers,” leaving only the doom and gloom. I didn’t have any fun at all watching this movie.

“Soul Food Stories” – There’s nothing particularly bad about this glimpse into life in a small, Bulgarian town ruled by “tradition” (a euphemism for female oppression). It’s a good way to experience a place that I would never want to visit. But it’s hard not to get upset watching men stand around discussing a woman’s place and the reasons why they can’t be involved in decisions. The men think they are being open-minded because they can come together from different religious backgrounds and have a civil discussion over drinks. But they all seem to agree that women aren’t good for anything other than cooking and taking care of the house. No wonder all the young people move away at their first opportunity.

“Last Weekend” – Patricia Clarkson is the shining jewel in this otherwise mediocre film about the end of an era for one affluent family at their Lake Tahoe palatial estate. Mostly depicting spoiled young people fretting about their “problems” (like how mom might be selling ONE of their childhood vacation homes – who will get her basket collection?!) reads like an Oscar Wilde play minus the jokes. Only Clarkson delivers a nuanced performance, bringing some universal maternal angst into the otherwise bland story. Gifted character actor, Fran Kranz is utterly squandered in a completely dispensable role.

OOOOH:

“Art & Craft” – An absolutely riveting character study of a lonely, mentally unbalanced man named Mark Landis, who has found purpose in forging famous paintings and donating them to museums around the country. Landis accidentally creates a nemesis in Matthew Leininger, a registrar who, after interacting with him for mere minutes, becomes preoccupied with exposing the man for a fraud, despite the lack of illegality in his “binge philanthropy”. The story gives both men ample screen time, turning this ripped-from-the-headlines tale into a study of the madness of loneliness from two sides of the same coin.

“Boyhood” – If you spend 12 years making a film, I imagine it’s emotionally taxing to edit. The excessive running time is one of the only missteps in Richard Linklater’s opus, which follows a boy and his family (using the same actors throughout) from age 6 to 18. Though the boy (Ellar Coltrane) is the main character, the film also spends plenty of time with his older sister and divorced parents (in career-defining performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). It is such a unique endeavor that the more scripted/cinematic scenes weigh down what is otherwise a very poignant and naturalistic portrait of family dynamics.

“Club Sandwich” – A coming-of-age film that accurately captures the awkward, mortifying messiness of teenage sexual exploration as well as the internal struggle that even the coolest mom experiences when she starts to feel her baby pull away.

“Obvious Child” – Jenny Slate displays a variety of performance skills in her lead debut. Best known for her scene-stealing guest spots on shows like “Parks and Rec”, “Bob’s Burgers” and “Hello Ladies” to name a few, she gets a chance to deliver her signature confessional comedy in the role of a struggling stand-up comedian who falls apart after being dumped. She almost sabotages a budding romance with an uber-nice guy after an evening’s indiscretion. Ably backed by Gaby Hoffman, writer/director Gillian Robespierre injects life into the lady-in-arrested-development trope and offers a rare depiction of a healthy, supportive female friendship.

“The Trip to Italy” – Featuring a self-aware conversation about the disappointment of sequels, Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to “The Trip” (2010) defies conventional wisdom, giving audiences a worthy predecessor. Though it’s more of the same (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing satirical versions of themselves as they attempt to outperform each other during a culinary odyssey), it’s a delicious dish that I’d happily consume again and again. This time, Brydon gets to showcase the pathos and Coogan provides glimpses of self-awareness through peppering hair and a sagging middle. It’s still up in the air whose Michael Caine impression dominates.

“South is Nothing” – You may never be in the mood to experience the emotional destruction that this film delivers. But if you’re already feeling gloomy, you might as well watch this Italian tragedy about a lonely teenage girl who yearns to learn the truth about her brothers’ disappearance. Lead actress, Miriam Karlvist, devastates with her robust performance.

Most of these films already have distribution deals, so look for them in your neck of the woods in the coming months. See you next year, San Fran!

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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FILM THREAT REVIEW: SOUTH IS NOTHING

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
86 minutes

****

Italian director Fabio Mollo also co-wrote the compelling script for his debut feature, “South is Nothing,” a film that serves as a series of swift, emotional gut punches. The story follows 17-year-old Grazia (Miriam Karlkvist) and her single father, Christiano (Vinicio Marchioni) as they deal (and don’t deal) with the death of brother/son Pietro. Karlvist, bearing the brunt of the screen time, deftly wields the emotional weight of the linguistically sparse script. We don’t always know what’s going through her head, but we don’t need specifics to feel her grief and frustration with her father’s refusal to connect or confess.

Christiano lives in a tenuous limbo, having done something to piss off the local mafia-controlled fish trade in their small Italian seaside town. Someone wants him both out of business and out of town. He is just coming to terms with the fact that he will be unable to keep the shop in the family, but he fails to take into account the notion that Grazia might not want that life anyway. He uses Grazia’s final exams as a stalling tactic, claiming he can’t do anything until she finishes school. But Grazia might never finish because her head and heart are not in it.

Grazia has been slowly going mad for five years, living in the dark about her brother’s absence. She knows nothing beyond the fact that he is recently deceased. Christiano and her grandmother know the truth about what happened, but refuse to discuss it. It doesn’t help Grazia’s emotional state that her grandmother claims to see and speak with Pietro’s ghost on a regular basis. Grazia eventually convinces herself that he’s still alive and begins to chase his apparition all over town. Without a thread of sanity among them, the occasional suggestion of paranormal activity also keeps the audience on the fence about the truth of the matter.

But this isn’t a film about truth. It’s about raw, unbridled emotion. Christiano is an utter mess – so blinded by grief and his own problems, that he doesn’t see his daughter becoming an adult who will soon be making her own life decisions. Without any parental guidance, Grazia mostly spends her days alone, laying in Pietro’s boat and trying to connect with him in any way she can.

No friends to speak of, Grazia is teased at school for her butch appearance and anti-social behavior. She is quiet and solitary, her drinking and smoking tendencies more closely resembling adult coping strategy (particularly her father’s) than teenage rebellion. But she still contends with the irrational mood swings that come with being 17. Eventually, she strikes up a volatile friendship with Carmelo, the son of a traveling carnival vendor. Carmelo, gives her a hard time at first, but it’s likely due to the connection issues that arise from a nomadic lifestyle.

Those who desire resolution should steer clear of “South is Nothing.” It’s driven by pathos rather than plot. Every human interaction in this film is a struggle. But if you’re in the market for visual poetry (thanks to cinematographer, Debora Vrizzi) and a powerhouse performance by Karlvist, you’ll be a satisfied customer.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: CLUB SANDWICH

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
79 minutes

****

In “Club Sandwich,” 15-year-old Hector (Lucio Gimenez Cacho) and his young, hip, single mother, Paloma (Maria Renee Prudencio), seem perfectly content spending their off-season resort vacation lounging around the deserted pool and playing card games in their hotel room. But Hector’s emerging sexuality is the elephant in the room that only becomes more apparent once a girl his own age shows up. Third-time writer/director Fernando Eimbcke takes the fleeting adolescent vacation romance a step further by showing how coming-of-age can affect the parents who are powerless to stop it.

Eimbcke’s script has very little dialog, but every beautifully sparse scene speaks volumes about its characters. We understand everything we need to know about Hector and Paloma’s situation in the film’s first few minutes without a hint of exposition. Paloma has clearly been raising Hector on her own for, if not his whole life, a very long time. They are financially strapped which is why they find themselves at a nearly deserted resort during the off-season. They spend a lot of time alone together. So much so that Hector makes up excuses for returning to the room without her so that he can become better acquainted with his hand. It’s not clear how long Hector has been coming into his own (sorry), but his emerging manhood catches Paloma off guard. She squeals with a mixture of fascination and horror when she notices a tiny patch of fur forming above his upper lip and begs him not to shave it, lest it grow in thicker.

The rift in their relationship widens when Hector meets Jazmin (Danae Reynaud Romero), a girl who boasts that very specific brand of awkward assertiveness that comes from being a smart only child with very old parents. She invites him back to her room under the pretense that the sunscreen she has applied to his body needs to “soak in.” She tells him they are sitting on the very bed in which she was conceived while her nurse-like stepmother flits around behind them, tending to her elderly, possibly ailing father. Her seduction technique is unusual, but effective on a boy who recognizes a rare (if not inaugural) opportunity for physicality. It’s not love. It’s a practical arrangement of two sexually inexperienced adolescents who just want to check a couple of things off their to-do list.

Regardless, it takes a couple of false starts before they seal the deal. Meanwhile, Paloma gets wise to the true nature of their interactions and panics, waffling between attempts to facilitate their union and prevent it. She wants Hector to be happy, but she is unable to suppress the fact that she’s not ready to let go of her little boy. You can see the wheels turning in her head, fast-forwarding through the rest of his childhood to the part where he leaves her for good. This isn’t a tale of “parents just don’t understand” so much as “parents understand all too well.” It’s refreshing to see the theme explored from both sides and with such subtle veracity.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

AN EVENING WITH RICHARD LINKLATER/BOYHOOD

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL EVENT!

On Friday, May 2nd, the 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival presented director Richard Linklater with their Founding Director’s Award. The San Francisco Film Society decided to make a night of it, with “An Evening with Richard Linklater” at the Castro Theatre. The packed-to-the-gills event sandwiched a screening of his latest film, “Boyhood,” between two Q & A sessions. Longtime friend and colleague, Parker Posey, moderated the first segment with a casual familiarity. Posey was among many actors to hit it big after appearing in Linklater’s second film, “Dazed and Confused,” including Matthew “Don’t Call Him Matt” McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellweger. The cult classic, released 27 years ago (holy crap), also helped to kick start Linklater’s fertile career.

Posey and Linklater reminisced their way through his catalog, spending ample time with “Dazed and Confused.” Linklater revealed that the iconic music for the film came before the story. When he finally got around to casting, he made mix tapes (that’s cassette tapes, kids) for all of his actors to get them in the correct headspace. His auditions included a brief interview about their high school experience, wherein he promptly dismissed anyone who claimed to have had a good time.

He also admitted that the beloved “Before” films, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, were never meant to be a trilogy. But he found himself revisiting those characters and every 5 or 6 years wondered, “What they were up to?” Those ruminations would turn into a script. Fortunately, Hawke and Delpy were always game to reprise those roles as well. He’s not sure there’s much left to tell of their story, however as “meeting briefly becomes less and less age appropriate.”

In her introduction, Posey called Linklater “a voice of my generation,” but with his diverse body of work, that title seems too limiting. In addition to writing about youth culture, he’s also made films about bank robbers, music teachers, the fast food industry, a man driven to murder and Orson Welles. Linklater seems game for just about anything, so long as there’s a good story in it. As he put it, he’s, “Always channeling things through the filter of cinema.”

Despite his prolificacy, Linklater confessed to frequently spending years with an idea before bringing it to fruition, so that he could be sure to get it right. “Waking Life” came from a real dream he had, but he didn’t make the film for another 20 years. He wasn’t even sure that the idea was filmable until some of his friends began experimenting with Rotoscope technology. It was then that he finally understood how to make it work.

The way he tells it, he’s “had two good cinematic thoughts all these years”. One was his first film, “Slacker,” which told a complete story by following one character to the next. The Austin, TX native culled the story from real people who populated his neighborhood in the 1980s. “Slacker” was the film that launched his career and it is also heralded as one of the great pioneer independent films.

His other “good cinematic thought” was to tell a story by following one actor through his formative years in order to create an honest and illuminative narrative about childhood. This film became “Boyhood,” a bold experiment in filmmaking that could have easily fallen apart at any point during the 12 years he spent on it. He didn’t just follow the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane. He also employed Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, to play the family. Year after year, the actors agreed to come back and shoot for one week, until he had a complete story. The end result is astounding.

Though “Boyhood” is a tad on the long side, I have to forgive Linklater because I imagine that putting that much of your life into a film would make it very difficult to cut. The running time is a minor criticism, as is the imprecision of the title. Coltrane’s Mason is our guide, but everyone in the family grows and changes in profound ways throughout the story. This is some of the best work that Arquette and Hawke have ever done. Every beat of their performances feels authentic and personal. Linklater also struck gold with Coltrane and his daughter, who remained natural (and reliable) throughout. The film also serves as a sort of time capsule, since the “period” scenes were actually shot in the eras in which they take place. Technology, fashion, pop culture and politics evolve organically. Arquette’s mother character, the children’s primary caregiver does the best she can to provide for her children, getting a psychology degree and attempting to find them a reliable father figure. Her faulty spouse selection causes much of the drama over the years, but she eventually finds the confidence to raise them on her own. Hawke plays the absentee dad who ultimately comes around to fatherhood, trading in his muscle car for a mini van and attempting to incorporate his original children into his second-chance domesticity with another woman.

There aren’t many films out there than can satisfy everyone, but surely “Boyhood” comes close. If you are a human being who grew up in America, some part of the film will resonate with you. If nothing else, the scale of the experiment is a sight to behold. “Boyhood” will certainly remain a highlight in Linklater’s career, even if he continues to make films for another 27 years.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: SOUL FOOD STORIES

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
70 minutes

**

“Soul Food Stories” explores life in the minute Bulgarian town of Satovcha (population 2021). The film’s premise is that despite the lack of residents, there exists a diverse culture from many different religious and political backgrounds. Their common ground is the food, which brings them all together to debate their viewpoints in a safe forum. But those who taut this as a cultural utopia fail to recognize the problem with the gaping gender divide, which keeps the women in the kitchen and away from anything resembling influence. Director Tonislav Hristov doesn’t exactly promote female oppression, but the tone of his film is so happy-go-lucky that it almost feels like misogynist propaganda. This made it a little tough for me to enjoy.

The film opens with a chain-smoking man who waxes philosophic about how television has ruined Bulgarian women. It teaches them empowerment, which, he claims, has lead to the declining birth rate. This is just the first of many such rants about a woman’s place. “The woman can never be equal to the man,” says another male resident. “But we don’t beat them. We love them.” They must take care of the house. Everything else is a man’s job. Women are also not allowed at funerals because the attendees are not allowed to cry and women “couldn’t control themselves.” Instead, the men attend the funeral procession through town while the women stay in the kitchen, preparing numerous brown and bubbling dishes to nourish the stronger sex when they return. The film theorizes that, in Satovcha, food is the great unifier. I suppose, in that sense, the women have the most important role of all. But they can never break out of this mold.

To be fair, the women who live there seem fine with this arrangement. Their biggest complaint is that they only have one afternoon available to them at the Pensioner’s Club, the town’s main meeting place. The rest of the time, the men sit around, drinking and discussing politics and religion in what they consider to be a very progressive environment. The women vote on whether or not they should ask for another day, but ultimately, it’s not up to them. The men already believe that they are being extremely generous to let women into their club at all. The women will not press the issue. The men are in charge. This is, essentially, what they’ve signed up for. It’s not hard to leave Satovcha if they don’t like the way things are. Most of the younger generations do just that, which accounts for the lack of residents as well as tourists.

“The traditions stay the same,” notes a young woman who grew up there but now lives in America. When she visits, she falls back into the old ways, remaining in the kitchen with her female relatives. But she is always happy to return to the U.S. The families communicate with expats via Skype but rarely see each other in the flesh. They choose to leave their traditions and family behind because “something can always be improved.” The traditional women say this as if it is a bad thing to be so ambitious.

“Soul Food Stories” provides a glimpse into world very different from Western culture. And I’m sure the food depicted is delicious. It ought to be. The people who make it do little else, so they have plenty of time to perfect their recipes. One of the signature dishes is called Alaka. It’s known as the food that “brings the people together.” They are happy to welcome people from different backgrounds so long as they all have a penis or know their place. (Oh, and no homos, either.) The pensioners who stay in Satovcha all seem quite content with their lifestyle, so I am hesitant to judge the life they have chosen. But I’m certainly not planning to visit anytime soon.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: STANDING ASIDE, WATCHING

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

*

Perhaps because of their woeful economic state, there aren’t a lot of films coming out of Greece at the moment. Hopefully, “Standing Aside, Watching” isn’t their best cinematic foot forward because watching it was an incredibly painful experience.

Billed as a Greek western revenge film, the premise sounds promising. Well, they either have a different definition of western revenge or they utterly failed in their mission. The heroine, named after the mythical character Antigone, never successfully avenges anything. That makes all the horror that comes before it feel gratuitous and also undermines the whole purported point of the film – that of female empowerment and action. Though the running time is only 90 minutes, the unfolding of the action feels excruciatingly slow and the titular line is uttered so much that it starts to feel like a cliché.

Antigone (Marina Symeou) narrates the film, explaining the cultural and economic culture of her small Grecian town in voiceover. She thought things were bad when she was growing up in the 1980s. Little did she know, she had been living in the salad days. The present-day incarnation of her seaside town is much worse off. But, having thrown in the towel on an acting career in Athens, she decides to make a go of it anyway, taking a teaching job as well as a much younger lover (Yorgos Kafetzopoulos – the Greek Jake Gyllenhaal). She also reconnects with an old school chum, Eleni, who has found herself in a very abusive relationship with the town baddie, Nondas, an unscrupulous scrap yard owner who makes Deadwood’s Al Swearengen look like a feminist.

One thing writer/director Yorgos Servetas does well (with the help of cinematographer Claudio Bolivar) is set the scene. The viewer really gets to know the town via numerous landscape shots. Destinations are far enough apart that Antigone must drive everywhere, passing scenery that alternates from industrial to pastoral, dilapidated to picturesque. The contrast is not subtle. Servetas does not seem capable of subtlety, which is perhaps why he has his characters explain the title over and over again. Do you get it? This town has fallen apart because of passivity. It has allowed the criminal, patriarchal element to take over through inaction. Servetas really wants to make sure you understand what he’s going for.

In Greek myth, Antigone is the incestuous product of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. She gets in trouble when she defies the laws of King Creon in order to give her brother a proper burial. The specifics of the tale have nothing to do with the plot of “Standing Aside, Watching.” But Antigone’s self-righteous attitude is what the two women have in common. You might call them “antigonistic.”

Like with most Greek myths, there isn’t really anyone to root for here. Neutral people become terrible and already terrible people become worse. The would-be heroine doesn’t deserve what happens to her, but she treats almost everybody she meets poorly, including her boyfriend, who just so happens to work for Nondas. Apart from Antigone’s brother, who has the good sense to live by the beach, as far removed from town as possible, the most moral character is a stray dog. The dog is also the only creature that receives Antigone’s full love and support.

The plot builds toward a breaking point for Antigone. But there is no justice for her. All of her strength and resolve just gets her into more and more trouble and, in the end, it is a man who must save her. Ultimately, the narrative seems to suggest that if you’re going to stand up to evil and oppression, you’d better have some testicular backup. I suppose that’s nothing new in Greek stories. But it’s still pretty disappointing. Guess Antigone would have been better off standing on the sidelines, watching.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).