It was week two of the Festival, and I was getting a semi-permanent feeling of being hung-over. At a certain point, Festival parties almost feel like somewhat of a chore; the eating, the drinking, the schmoozing — when would it end?
There were a few delightful surprises, such as the last minute appearance of Werner Herzog, who brought his latest film “Wings of Hope.” So many directors were in attendance that it was almost journalistically overwhelming. Who to interview? What’s got buzz? Whose film will be the Next Big Thing?
Granted, SFIFF is no Sundance (thankfully), but there is an air of expectation in the air that has nothing to do with commercial considerations. The unspoken question on people’s minds here is not, “Who will have the next big hit?” or “Who’s going to get picked up for distribution?” Rather, audiences here are much more concerned with a film’s contribution to cinema or art. Informed, playfully snobby, and passionate, SF filmgoers are a paradoxical combination of incredibly demanding and remarkably accepting. I found myself constantly engaged in intelligent conversation while waiting in line or sitting in theaters before screenings, and even made a few new friends.
The Festival had sold-out attendance for most films, and always felt like the major event it was. I was grateful to be able to escape the unrelenting throngs, and hide back in the hospitality room of the Kabuki Theater to nosh bagels and sip beer.
As exhausting as covering a such a huge festival can be, I feel compelled to pay SFIFF the ultimate compliment — I can’t wait to go next year.
BADOU BOY ^ * * * ^ Djibil Djop Mambety’s first feature is a sprightly, spirited look at the life of an African street urchin, told through vignettes.
The version I watched did not have subtitles, and my knowledge of French is based upon French fries, French toast, and French kissing — in other words, c’est merde. Still, the film is mostly silent (with music), and what dialogue it has was dubbed after the fact.
The film begins by showing the film crew setting up for a shot, and although the work is not really a self-referential work about film, it in some ways is a self-referential work about story-telling. The characters are archetypal sketches. The titular “Boy,” for example, is chased by a “Cop,” and their relationship is not unlike that of an underdog silent film comic to his standard foil, a generic authority-figure policeman. It is the function of one to chase, the other to be chased. To reinforce the film’s connection to the silent era, Mambety himself appears as a Charles Chaplin-like figure replete with bowler and cane.
The film serves as another important indicator of how influential Western cinema has been to the rest of the globe. Like Godard’s “Breathless” absorbs and redefines tough-guy noir through the lens of French art cinema, Mambety has digested silent comedies and recreated them in a uniquely African mold.
THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB ^ * * * * ^ This is the latest effort by influential German director Wim Wenders, whose poetic “Wings of Desire” earned him a permanent blip on the art-film radar.
“Buena Vista” was mostly shot in Cuba on digital video, and includes concert footage from Holland and New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It follows a group of musicians assembled largely via the work of slide-guitar legend Ry Cooder, who went to Havana with the purpose of putting together an album. When the original plans fell through, he began to seek out musicians to resurrect the project. Through local contacts, he fell in with a group of Cuban musical legends whose careers had fallen into near-obscurity. Cooder’s project reunited many old friends, and resulted in an internationally successful hit Latin-jazz album that resurrected interest in the work of many of these nearly forgotten musicians.
Wenders’ video camera gives us glimpses into the lives and histories of the group members, as well as numerous recording sessions. Even if this style of music is not normally your taste, their sound and rhythm are undeniably infectious, especially in light of their heartfelt, tightly orchestrated performances.
GET REAL ^ * * * * ^ This film is ostensibly about a teenage boy coming out at high-school, but is really about the tribulations of growing up.
Simon Shore’s film goes out of its way to be as mainstream as possible, and avoids aiming for a strictly “queer” demographic. Indeed, it almost feels like a slightly hipper version of Afterschool Special, and maintains an innocent charm throughout. The performances are solid throughout, and the writing is straightforward and tight.
One only hopes that such a film won’t just preach to the converted, but will hopefully be seen by the kind of people who are unforgiving about homosexuality, especially in light of the infamous Matthew Shephard gay-bashing murder.
GRANDMA AND HER GHOSTS ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ This is a colorful, funny, and enchanting film about a young boy named Dou-Dou, and his unusual experiences while a guest of his Grandmother, a woman who fulfills a traditional Taiwanese role and helps the spirits of the dead find their way to the afterlife.
When he accidentally releases a demon Grandma keeps trapped in a bottle, hell literally breaks loose. The demon possesses Grandma’s black cat, and it begins to bend the lad’s ear in attempt to wreak revenge on Grandma. When the demon shows Dou-Dou how to see ghosts as well, he becomes enmeshed in his familial legacy, and plays part in a struggle between good and evil.
The story introduces us to a fantastic array of unusual characters, including the hilariously possessed evil kitty, the ghost of a snake squished flat by a truck, a dead little girl whose pissed-off rag-doll acts as her interpreter, and of course Grandma, who is a frothy mixture of bluster and unconditional love.
The story beautifully discusses the idea of life after death, and captures a fairy-tale atmosphere seen through the eyes of a child comparable to the works of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro”).
MEGACITIES ^ * * * * ^ This partially staged documentary is a powerful glimpse into lives of extreme desperation lived on the fringes of four major cities; Bombay, New York, Mexico City, and Moscow. The film’s stated theme is survival, and the remarkable extremes that people will go simply to exist.
We meet such individuals as an Indian color-sifter trapped in Bombay because of lack of cash, a Mexican stripper and single mother of several children, a New York petty grifter who cons suckers and robs gay men to support his large heroin habit, and a group of Muscovite street-urchins who live via petty theft and begging like latter-day Dickensian waifs. These are only a few scattered close-ups into the hard-scrabble existences of the millions of others who disappear into the teeming masses. A notable commonality in these disparate lives is lack of self-pity; they do what they must without time for tears.
Many of the film’s remarkable and gritty images will undoubtedly lead viewers to evaluate the relative success or failure their own lives, or cause them to feel thankful for what they have. “Megacities” is sure to leave you with the idea that many people live lives that we cannot possibly imagine, and may indeed ourselves be unable to endure.
ON THE ROPES ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This film tells its story simply and well. Three youths from New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood attempt to use boxing as a way to get out of the frustration and hopelessness of the inner city. Along the way, they must confront both themselves and forces beyond their control.
Noel is a young boy who tries to replace his life of petty crime with one of boxing, yet his commitment constantly wavers. George is a rising talent, and looks to have a promising career in the sport, if only he survives the shark-like profiteers who constantly circle just outside of the ring. Tyrene dreams of boxing success that will lift her from the ghetto, but is dragged down by a boozing, crack-smoking uncle. Their trainer, Harry, provides quiet momentum to their ambition, and is himself a man with a criminal past who has struggled to rise above his mistakes.
Their stories paint a portrait that via metaphor widens to encompass the struggles faced by everyone who dreams the dream of a better life.
THIS IS MY FATHER ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ This is a beautifully told tale about a man’s search to learn about the life of the father he never knew. James Caan gives a solid performance as an American high school teacher seeking his roots in Ireland. Returning to his ailing mother’s former hometown, he uncovers a decades-old tale of tragic romance.
Aidan Quinn gives one the better, more understated performances of his career as Kieran O’Day, a simple but passionate farmer. Newcomer Moya Farrelly is spirited as O’Day’s true love.
The film was a remarkable collaboration between the three Quinn brothers; Aidan in the lead role, Paul as director, and Declan as cinematographer. The story unfolds like a 1930’s “Romeo & Juliet,” and is packed with exquisite period detail. Declan (who previously shot “Leaving Las Vegas”) lensed the film with almost exclusively natural light, and its look brilliantly portrays the Irish landscape as its own darkly melancholic character. Although Paul’s background is in theater, his first directorial effort on film portends a magnificent career in cinema.
A TRUE MOB STORY ^ * * * ^ This is an extremely conventional Hong Kong gangster film. While competently made, it adds nothing to the wide spectrum of much more creative and innovative films.
The story takes on soap opera overtones, as do so many Hong Kong films, but it never rises above long-established conventions of its genre. We meet the long-suffering molls, stone killers, evil gang bosses, and usual cast of murdering thugs found in other films of its like. The film’s “gimmick” is that in nod to realism, everybody uses machetes and clubs instead of guns to commit their mayhem, and no one is a kung-fu expert. The film is supposedly based upon a true story, but quickly loses any link to reality with its presentation of comic-book bad guys and hyperviolent situations.
Director Wong Jing is noted for such seminal works of the Hong Kong gangster genre as “God of Gamblers,” but with this film he does nothing to further his reputation.
WELCOME BACK, MR. MCDONALD ^ * * * * ^ This is a delightfully funny film, and Woody Allen-esque in the tradition of “Bullets Over Broadway.”
When a young woman wins a radio drama scriptwriting contest, her work is to be staged live with a group of professional actors. When an egotistical star demands changes in her role, it sets off a chain of petty bickering and new demands from everyone on the group that lead to further script changes as the deadline for the performance approaches. A furious scrabble to fix the newly-created discrepancies in the story ensues in chaos.
Entertaining and charming, this film is a textbook case of how to make a solid low-budget character piece.
THE WINSLOW BOY ^ * * * ^ I was at times underwhelmed by David Mamet’s latest effort as both writer and director. Adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, the film is a slow moving examination of events precipitated by a young boy’s expulsion from a military academy after he is accused of a theft. The boy’s father, sure of his son’s innocence and indignant at the smear upon the family name, fights for years to win against an uncaring system, and in doing so puts the family under financial and emotional strain.
Mamet loves to cast his current wives in lead roles, as he did with Lindsay Crouse in “House of Games,” who is so detached she almost ruins the film. In “Winslow,” the latest spouse to benefit from her husband’s name is Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays the pivotal role of young Winslow’s older suffragette sister with completely flat affect. Whatever you may feel about Mamet’s writing, he has an uncanny knack for marrying mediocre actresses.
Smart performances are turned in by Jeremy Northam (“Emma”) as the family’s expensive and handsome barrister, Gemma Jones (“The Devils”) as the nobly suffering mother, and Nigel Hawthorn (“The Madness of King George”) commands the screen as the family patriarch.
Benont Delhomme’s cinematography is crisp, clean, and emphasizes the rich earth tones and natural lighting of the Winslow home. Delhomme is a genuis, and his work has been seen notably in Tran Anh Hung’s remarkable “Cyclo,” and he lensed Mike Figgis’ latest work, “The Loss of Sexual Innocence.”
WOMAN OF THE PORT ^ * * 1/2 ^ Another slow-moving, barely edited film by Arturo Ripstein, this film creeps along at a snail’s pace and expects us to remain interested.
Ripstein should have been a theater director, as he cannot resist shooting films as if they were plays. His tableaux are simple and stagy, his dialogue overwrought and soap-opera-like, and his camera work uninspired. I don’t get the appeal of his work.
His films possess the melodramatic gaudiness, color, and unflinching eye of many south-of-the-border films I’ve seen, yet lack the zany humor and lust for life that I’ve witnessed in other Mexican film — evident, for example, in the work of Buquel (who greatly influenced Ripstein). Ripstein takes himself far too seriously, especially considering his interest in unusual characters in potentially comedic situations, and his works have a ponderous weight that drag them down.
XIAO WU ^ * * * ^ Robert Bresson made this same film better and far earlier with his exquisite existentialist “Pickpocket” in 1959. “Xiao Wu” essentially treads the same ground, and has little to add.
The film’s best moment comes at the very end, which shows not only a scene of total social disapproval, but of utter small-town incomprehension at the fact that someone could even become a thief, much less commit any kind of crime.
The film was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, yet manages to look fairly professional. I imagine that making an independent feature in China is far more difficult than in the United States, so I applaud filmmaker Jia Zhang Khe’s initiative and determination.
WINGS OF HOPE ^ * * * * ^ The latest work from influential director Werner Herzog, this documentary retraces astonishing events that took place 25 years ago, when a plane crash in the Amazon jungle in Peru killed everyone aboard except a sole survivor, teenage Juliane Koepke.
Koepke not only survived the crash itself, but when search parties could not find the craft’s wreckage in the dense forest, she began a grueling 12-day trek through to reach civilization. Koepke ‘s parents were biologists, and she grew up at a research station at the jungle’s edge. Her knowledge of the local wilderness enabled her to make informed survival decisions, such as how to follow streams to where they met larger rivers. She lived on water alone, and exhausted and malnourished, finally found a man who brought her back to civilization.
The film crew rediscovered the wreckage with the assistance of local “macheteros,” who helped them hack long miles into the thick brush. There, Koepke recalled her remarkable experiences, and retraced her jungle hike.
Herzog had personal interest in making the film, as he was in Peru at the time of the crash filming “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.” He and his crew were scheduled to ride a leg of the same flight on the same plane as Koepke, and would have also inevitably perished had their pat of the flight not been canceled at the last minute.
Moving and poetic, Herzog takes artistic license with the film, and blurs the lines of documentary film with creative narration that ascribes his own feelings and ideas of the crash to Juliane.
Q & A WITH DIRECTOR WERNER HERZOG ^ On Juliane Koepke: ^ “It is not only a film of her, it’s a film on something deeper, and part of it is of course her relationship to nature, and how to cope with it, and how to live, and how to survive, and how to do it right. There were press reports that speak of two miracles. One of course is an evident miracle; how do you survive a fall from three miles up? There is a miraculous element in it, even though other people have survived falls from aircraft before her. But the second miracle is not a miracle, it has a name, and that is Juliane Koepke. She did everything right. I like her attitude, I like her a lot, and I would not be able to make a film about someone who I didn’t really like.
On the crash that could have killed him: “Of course I remember everyone (in the crew) very well, because I flew this aircraft at least 20-25 times. It was the least expensive airline we could find. And I remember that I kept joking with the stewardesses. I would always sit at the window, if I ever could I would sit at the window, because I wanted to see the Andes and the beginning of the jungle. But before the seatbelt signs were off, I would unbuckle and rush back to the stewardesses. There was in this Lockheed Electra this very strange sort of lounge back there, two leather couches. And I would ask them for a whisky, and I kept joking with them, and I told them, “Well, I do not smoke, I do not booze, I do not go to the whorehouses — my only vice is death.” And they really laughed about this, and I thought that it was a fine sort of thing to become friends with them. And they all laughed, and a fortnight later they were all dead.”
On the jungle: “My relationship to the jungle is not scientific, but I think I have an attitude which is to an equal extent not romanticized. I can’t stand this romanticization of the jungle, and I have spoken out against this romanticization of the jungle, and I’ve spoken out in particular against Klaus Kinski, who found everything erotic, and would hug a tree, which I just couldn’t bear, I couldn’t see that. And it was just for the cameras, and he would just stylize himself, even though he never went into the jungle. For months and months, he never went even 30 feet into the jungle; only if there was a photographer around he would do that — his attitude was always more important. And I kept challenging him, and I said, ‘The jungle is not erotic, it is obscene. The jungle is obscene and it is full of asphixiation and struggle of survival, and the only common denominator is collective murder.’ And you can hear a wild statement about this in Les Blank’s film “Burden of Dreams,” where I get very explicit. And last Friday I published a manifesto in Minneapolis, which is called the Minnesota declaration. And it’s about fact and truth in documentary film, or in film in general. And in this declaration, this manifesto, I have some wild paragraphs against Mother Nature.”
On the difference between making narrative and making documentaries: “There is not much difference; I stylize both. The lines are blurred, and in this film, many things are invented, but for the sake of truth, because there is something mysterious and elusive in cinema, in particular, in documentary cinema. An elusive, poetic, and what I call ecstatic truth. And you can only reach it by fabrication, by invention, by stylization. For example, the end of the film is totally stylized, totally made up, totally invented. Her dreams about the broken faces — totally invented. Her dreams about the frozen animals — totally invented. And yet, they belong to her. It’s her innermost existence. It is her ecstatic truth, something that is beyond cinema veriti. Cinema veriti touches only a superficial stratum of truth, and there’s something deeper. Cinema veriti, I keep saying, is the truth of the accountants. There’s something deeper. And I’m annoyed, and I can’t take it any longer when I switch on television and I see these pseudo-documentaries. I just can’t stand it anymore, and I just try to put something against that, and that’s why I’m so inventive. And this is why the borderline between narrative films and documentaries is not very clear in my case.”
On television: “I’m sick and tired of watching American television where everyone for every single little incident breaks out in tears and collapses in emotions. I just can’t stand it any more. This is one of the reasons why German television hates the film. They told me, ‘Why doesn’t she (Koepke) break down when confronted with the fragments of the airplane?’ And I said, ‘Because she is a strong woman.’ They wanted to have this kind of television, this kind of indiscretion that I hate about television. It’s not about American television alone, it’s worldwide, it’s a phenomenon that the media, particularly television, has become an embarrassment of indiscretion and nobody realizes that discretion is a virtue. And the entire thing with Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is based on the fact that everybody blurts out whatever happens; it has to be publicized. And I can’t see the American soldiers returning (from Kosovo), and the soldiers now crying, and I just don’t like it. So thank God she’s not breaking down, thank God she’s not crying. I thank on my knees that she didn’t do it, even though television would have liked to see that.”