SCREEN GRABS There is surely nowhere in the world with more film festivals per capita than San Francisco. While the bigger annual events are mostly over by this time of the year, this weekend provides a good example of just how much diversity our city offers in terms of smaller festivals geared towards serving particular communities and spotlighting particular film genres.
The longest of the four such events taking place over this week alone is a newbie, the 2nd Cinematografo Film Festival, which plays Thurs/8-Sun/11 at the Kabuki. The latest of several Bay Area spotlights on Filipino cinema to arise in recent years, it opens with Chito Rono’s new drama Signal Rock, the Philippines’ official Oscar submission feature this year. Other highlights include a revival of Gene Cajayon’s 2000 The Debut, a pioneering Filipino-American feature, and closing night selection A Land Imagined. The latter is an international co-production set in Singapore, and announces Cinematografo’s intention to cast its programming net beyond solely Pinoy film. More info here.
In its third decade now, the SF Transgender Film Festival—the first of its kind of North America—operates this year in an atmosphere of unfortunate extra-relevancy, as the Trump administration is busy eradicating all the protections for trans citizens achieved (mostly) during the Obama years. The six distinct programs (including a kid-friendly Sunday matinee) unspooling at the Roxie this Friday through Sunday encompasses works from around the world. They include documentaries, music videos, narrative miniatures, and other primarily short-format pieces. More info here.
Shorts are the whole idea for the inaugural SF IndieShorts, the latest offshoot of that independent local festival mini-empire that already encompasses the long-running SF Indiefest, Docfest, and the imminent Another Hole in the Head. And like those established local fests, it will feature theme parties and live music events as well as film/video programs. Taking place this Friday through Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse, its bills include spotlights on VR, family dysfunction, youth flicks, and an opening night tribute to Sam Green, who was Oscar-nominated for co-directing The Weather Underground and since has specialized in adventuresome “live documentary” performances. More info here.
Finally, there’s another newcomer on the scene: Cine Chileno is making its debut at the Castro this Sunday with a one-day tribute to director Silvio Caiozzi, with features stretching the length of his long career: 1979’s coming-of-age saga Julio Begins in July, eccentric 1990 drama The Moon in the Mirror, and his latest, last year’s And Suddenly the Dawn. There will also be a program of his 2010 TV project Cheers from Chile, a documentary miniseries celebrating Chile’s nation-founding bicentennial (and its growing wine industry). More info here.
BONUS: This weekend also sees the the 43rd annual American Indian Film Festival at Brava, with dozens of features, hosts and forums “which bring artists, filmmakers, musicians, talent and the general local public together to celebrate, support and experience work produced by native and non-native peoples while advocating for authentic representation of native people in the media. More info here.
Among movies opening Friday that we did not get a chance to preview are two well-reviewed ones about ill-fated women of courage. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (at the Vogue) is a documentary about the 28-year-old African-American woman who was arrested under suspicious circumstances (the dashcam footage eventually released by police appeared to have been tampered with) during a routine traffic-violation stop in 2015 Prairie View, Texas. Three days later she was found hung to death in her jail cell—a supposed suicide with far too many question marks around it, particularly given the general climate of controversy over recurrent deaths of unarmed blacks in police custody. Ominously, that was a subject Bland had been publicly outspoken about.
Documentarian Matthew Heineman’s (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land) first narrative feature A Private War stars Rosamund Pike in what many are calling an Oscar-worthy turn as Marie Colvin, the London-based American journalist who lost an eye to a in Sri Lankan Army grenade in 2001, then lost her life covering the siege of Homs in 2012 Syria.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
This infuriatingly informative documentary by Alexander Shebanow, executive produced by Dan Rather, examines how government policies have led to an explosion of for-profit “rip off schools”—alleged institutions of higher learning that in many cases lack accreditation, in-person teachers, supplies, or even an actual physical location. Preying largely on the most vulnerable minority and lower-income students hoping to climb up that educational ladder towards the “American Dream,” they instead often saddle them with useless degrees, no improved job prospects, and tens of thousands of dollars in loan debt.
Government regulations have periodically clamped down hard on such fraudulent exercises, with predictable squawking from the financial sector that now sees them (or rather the loan debts they incur) as a huge money-machine. But Pres. George W. Bush undid all those regulations and then some with a “fox in the hen house” approach to staffing the Dept. of Education. And now Trump, Betsy DeVos et al. are busy dismantling what few protections Obama managed to re-introduce—under a President who himself owned a bogus university that was forced to pay $25 million back to its bilked students. The whole picture is being gamed so heavily in investors’ favor that this documentary worries U.S. public education may face eventual extinction altogether. Roxie. More info here.
Afterimage: Corneliu Porumboiu
A major figure in the Romanian New Wave, Porumboiu has personified its characteristic mix of documentary realism, mordant humor and a well-earned cynicism towards societal structures in several striking features to date. His 2006 debut feature 12:08 East of Bucharest was an exercise in poker-faced absurdism as a provincial TV station’s commemoration of the Ceaucescu regime’s 1989 overthrow reinforces heroic myths far removed from the reality of local events.
2009’s Police, Adjective applied a similar scalpel to the trustworthiness law enforcement, while The Treasure (2015) found a core of national desperation and haplessness in neighbors’ greed for imagined loot buried in a backyard. The director’s latest Infinite Football is a documentary, ostensibly about one man’s obsession with soccer, but like all Porumbuiu’s works its soon manages to encompass more universal, tragicomic themes. The auteur himself will be on hand for the entirety of this four-day retrospective. Thurs/8-Sun/11, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
Keaton and Callas…together at last!
Well, not exactly. But two docu-bios showcasing two 20th-century artistic geniuses happen to be opening this Friday. Veteran filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration (at Opera Plaza) opens with the director himself being interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1972 about his current subject. Geez, what humility. Fortunately, the rest of this entertaining overview focuses solidly on the great silent comedian’s life and work.
We get glimpses of his formative years as a “human projectile” child star in a family vaudeville act, as well as of his somewhat sad fate in the talkies—victim of what he admitted was his “biggest mistake,” signing on to a studio (MGM) that took away all his creative autonomy and fast reduced his star wattage to the faintest glow. But few great comedians are more rewarding in excerpt than Keaton, and the film spends plenty of time on the slapstick brilliance of the 1920s features he primarily directed, including such classics as The General and Sherlock Jr.
Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas (at the Clay—Berkeley and San Rafael openings follow next week) tells the legendary diva’s story “in her own words,” drawing on voluminous TV interviews as well as personal writings read here by Fanny Ardant. Hustled (like Keaton) onto a professional performing track from an early age, the U.S.-born, Greece-raised beauty became what many still consider the greatest operatic talent of the last century.
But it was her stormy off-stage life (notably a long-term involvement with the married tycoon Aristotle Onassis) that too often dominated public attention, and we see her here constantly hounded by pushy journalists—an early example of today’s common celebrity culture, in which stars resent the loss of privacy to an incessant intrusion that they themselves nonetheless encouraged to an extent. (We glean that Callas quite enjoyed talking about herself to reporters, except when she didn’t.)
This is a true fan’s tribute, drawing on a treasure trove of footage as well as audio recordings, and with numerous arias seen performed at full length. A full two hours, Volf’s first directorial feature may be a bit much for the just-casually-interested, but devotees will be in heaven.
Still working tirelessly and artfully at age 88, great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made a long career out of examining institutions—from the state mental asylum of his notoriously suppressed 1967 debut Titicut Folliesthrough last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Here he turns his wry yet carefully neutral gaze towards the thousand residents of a “deep red” state burg still rooted in agriculture, high school sports, and homespun patriotism. It’s this kind of seemingly timeless, insulated community that put Trump in the White House.
Yet as handsomely crafted as it is (and relatively short by Wiseman’s standards at “just” 143 minutes), Monrovia proves one of the filmmaker’s less rewarding studies. There are moments that surprise, as when an African-American woman’s presence at a funeral (where she is, natch, performing as a singer) jolts us with the realization that until then we haven’t seen a single person of color. But at this roiling, “divisive” political moment, the leisurely slice of small-town life proves disappointingly superficial in terms of probing why so many nice people apparently voted for corruption, against their own best interests…and probably will do so again. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas.
Wierdness and Terror at the Alamo
The Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays have coughed up more than a few memorable hairballs of retro exploitation entertainment, but in the coming days they are outdoing themselves with three psychotronic gems you need to make part of your cinematic lexicon. Next Tues/13 brings Deadbeat at Dawn, the 1988 no-budget urban gang warfare movie from Jim Van Bebber, the Cincinnati auteur who’d later become (slightly) better-known for Charlie’s Family, the fictionalized Manson movie that became legendary for being unfinished for so many years. Dawn is a scruffier, nastier violent delinquent movie than Roger Corman ever dared to make, as crazy as Switchblade Sisters or Class of 1984 without being quite so cartoonish.
On Wed/14, it’s Philip Brody’s 1993 Body Melt, an unclassifiable Aussie mix of horror, social satire and enthusiastic bad taste involving (among other things) a nutritional supplement that causes eventual great bodily harm. It’s not unlike Larry Cohen’s The Stuff in some respects, but with a crass, often very funny outrageousness all its own. It was a first and last feature for writer-director Philip Brophy, but it is one you will not forget.
Finally, getting a bit ahead of ourselves, there’s the Tues/20 showing of The Manitou, perhaps the most demented of the fairly big-budget, mainstream “possession” movies that followed in the wake of The Exorcist. Susan Strasberg plays a San Francisco woman who finds out the tumor in her neck is actually a gestating “vengeful 400-year-old Indian spirit,” and…well, aren’t you sold already? Need we add that the cast also manages to include Tony Curtis, Stella Stevens and Burgess Meredith? That it ends on a note that aspires towards 2001: A Space Odyssey’s cosmic mysticism? Director William Girdler (Three on a Meathook, Grizzly) died in a helicopter crash the next year, which is tragic, but you can’t say his filmography didn’t end on a very, very high note. More info here.