Movies

Olympia Dukakis has a few words

Olympia Dukakis. Photo by Joanna Tzetzoumis

When Olympia Dukakis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Moonstruck, in 1988, she became the first Greek American to win the much-coveted trophy.

Those with Greek ancestry were still decades away from being honored by Hollywood when the actress was first starting out. In fact, Dukakis — the subject of director-producer Harry Mavromichalis’ new documentary Olympia (Sun/20 at The Castro Theatre), which opens this year’s San Francisco Greek Film Festival— was previously shut out of the industry because of her ethnic roots.

But instead of giving up, she formed her own theatre company, the Whole Theatre in Montclair, NJ, to take on the parts that had been repeatedly denied to her by prejudiced producers.

“It was for the simple reason that I wanted to work,” Dukakis told 48 Hills.

Her stage success off and on Broadway would lead to such iconic film and TV roles as Sicilian matriarch Rose Castorini in Moonstruck, merry widow Clairee Belcher in Steel Magnolias, and “eccentric, marijuana-growing landlady” Anna Madrigal on Tales of the City.

Now, the trailblazing and multiple-award-winning actress will be recognized once again for her lifelong contribution to the arts with the San Francisco Greek Film Festival’s Honorary Astron Award.

I spoke to Dukakis about her latest honor, how Moonstruck changed the course of her career, and why she chose to expose her heaviest struggles in Olympia.

48 HILLS Olympia was filmed over a period of three years, starting in 2011. Why was that the right time to do a documentary and what were you hoping to achieve with it?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS It was Harry [Mavromichalis]’s idea. He was a graduate at NYU’s Film School. He was Greek. I wanted to help.

I was teaching at NYU Theater School at the time. We met after he invited me to teach a workshop in Cyprus. He shared with me his work, which I really liked, so when he asked to do this I hesitantly said, “Yes.”

48 HILLS You say in the film that the accolades, like a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, don’t mean a lot to you if they’re not about a specific piece of work. What does it mean to you, as a Greek American, to be honored by the SF Greek Film Festival?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS I am thrilled to be honored by the SF Greek Film Festival. I’m also very touched that they have chosen Olympia as the Opening Night film. San Francisco is close to my heart, so it means a lot to me to share this film with you.

48 HILLS How has the “Fight ye devils, I hate peace” mantra served you in your life and career? Are there ways that it hasn’t served you?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS I think I was born with that mantra.  It alerted me to when feeling used or abused. I am not a confrontational person. I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and by the time I was 13, I was carrying a knife. I had to protect myself and my safety was an issue.

It always served me. It has given me the clarity about whether or not I want to confront something.

Oympia Dukakis in the San Francisco Pride Parade.

48 HILLS You speak about not belonging in show business as a Greek American woman and how feeling outside the norm never goes away. How did you learn to live with who you are, and is that part of why you’ve celebrated the LGBTQ community as much as you have?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS I have friends in the LGBTQ community and knew what they were confronting and wanted to support them.

48 HILLS In playing transgender character Anna Madrigal on Tales of the City from 1993 to 2019, you committed a revolutionary act. What appealed to you about this character?  What did that experience teach you?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS I did not consider it revolutionary. I liked the complexity of her character and that as an “outsider” she had made her way.  It taught me to trust my instincts.

48 HILLS It’s so beautiful the way your late husband, actor Louis Zorich, supported and admired you. How are you handling this immense loss?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS It’s difficult. One day at a time. Keeping busy. Surrounding myself with friends and family. Meeting and marrying Louis and having my children are the best things that have ever happened to me.

48 HILLS How did starring in Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias impact the rest of your career?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS Moonstruck allowed me to enter the world of character actors and to be cast based on my talent — not my ethnicity. The reason I started my own theatre company was because I couldn’t get auditions to the plays I wanted. I was seen as too ethnic. Moonstruck changed that for me. Steel Magnolias then followed. People appreciated my craft.

48 HILLS In the film, you smoke cigarettes, talk about one-night stands, marital infidelity, maternal regrets, psychiatric issues, and attempted suicide. Was it hard to be so revealing?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS Not at all. Harry has a way of making you feel comfortable. You know you can trust him.  He is not there to sensationalize your life. He is asking the questions because he cares. And seeing the film, I saw that. It was important for him to show the audiences the struggles that artists go through before they “succeed.” This love he has for the nitty-gritty is what I think bonded us. Neither of us likes bullshit.

48 HILLS You’re asked in the film, “What’s your philosophy on death?” But I’m curious about your philosophy on life. What is it?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS Do what you want. Treat people decently. Learn from your mistakes. Pursue what matters to you.

SAN FRANCISCO GREEK FILM FESTIVAL: OLYMPIA
Sun/20, 5:30 pm, $15-$40
THE CASTRO THEATRE, SF.
More info here.

There’s a ‘Mad God’ at the Drunken Film Fest

From 'Mad God'

Clocking in at under an hour, Mad God, a highly experimental stop-motion film about an assassin who descends into a scary subterranean dystopia—full of monsters, mad scientists, and war pigs—is one of Phil Tippett’s shortest productions.

But taking 30 years to complete, it is certainly the longest project the Berkeley filmmaker and award-winning visual effects supervisor (famous for designing the great ghoul Jabba the Hutt for Return of the Jedi, the animated robot sequences in RoboCop, and the super-realistic dinosaur animation in Jurassic Park) has ever worked on.

In fact, it’s taken longer than the former head of animation and creature design at Industrial Light & Magic and current head of Berkeley’s Tippett Studio’s groundbreaking work on the Star Wars, Jurassic Park, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Twilight franchises combined.

But now that Mad God is almost complete (with the final chapter ready next fall), the director is ready to screen most of his mini-epic at the second annual Drunken Film Fest, which promises eight nights of indie films, animation, and music videos at eight of the hottest Oakland watering holes and booze-friendly theaters, October 4-12.

Tippett’s film, along with local filmmaker Nathania Zaini’s three-minute short Goodnight, Mr. Sandman, make up the festival’s opening-night showcase (Fri/4 at The New Parkway).

I spoke to Tippett about his labor of love, the challenges of working in film today, and what the future holds for the visual effects innovator.

48 HILLS Mad God is one of the wildest shorts I’ve ever seen. What inspired its crazy world and characters?

PHIL TIPPETT When I was a kid, I was into horror movies and monsters and my dad was an abstract expressionist painter who saw what I was doing. He had a pretty impressive collection of art books and he turned me onto the 15th Century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch, who did the small triptychs of heaven and hell.

His hell landscapes were populated by all manner of strange creatures doing nefarious things that human beings do. But today, we don’t understand the symbolism of that time, so they’re very enigmatic images that look like they’re telling a story, but many can’t understand what the story is. So that was the inspiration.

The whole thing was also premised on the idea of dream imagery and narrative, so it loosely combines a lot of stuff, very much as one might find in a dream. I spent years studying my dreams and became very cognizant of the narrative structure of my dreams. That was very much the impetus for how I structured Mad God, so it’s taking all the social anxieties that exist out there like climate change and nuclear war and a lack of concern for our brothers and sisters and wrapping them up into one untidy package.

48H Why did it take 30 years to complete?

PT In the late ‘80s, I started shooting it on 35MM film. We shot for eight months, ended up with six minutes of material, and then I had to archive that because I lost my crew and the digital revolution hit and we had two kids, so you can’t do that kind of thing. The project was just too big for me, so I put it on ice.

In the subsequent 20 years, I did a lot of research. I was reading Freud and Jung and the history of different religions and mythology. Then 20 years later, I was archiving the first material I shot in the late ‘80s, and a couple of the original guys got interested in the project. Then I had some volunteers and we rebooted and spent the subsequent 10 years shooting it and building props. So we just wrapped up principal photography and it will be in post-production for the next year.

From ‘Mad God’

48H Do you enjoy working in CGI as much as stop-motion animation?

PT No, I never did, but I never had to do it. It’s partially a result of I’m dyslexic, so working on computers is just antithetical to how I can even operate. And I can’t stand sitting at a desk—I like to move around—but fortunately, there are other people to execute that kind of stuff. So during that period, I effectively got kicked upstairs even further.

I do prefer material things and stop motion and the artificiality of it as opposed to attempting to make things photographically representational. I get it, but it’s just not as magical. I don’t go to the big Marvel spectacles, because the few I’ve seen are like drinking from the firehose or listening to a Bruckner symphony and you just want it to end, and it always seems like it but never does. So you’re just stuck there in some kind of weird cinematic purgatory.

48H How do you see the future of the visual effects industry?

PH The rug was pulled out from under us when all of the work went offshore to tax-advantaged countries and states. California couldn’t compete at all, so all of the work dried up.

But I’ve had to reinvent myself a half-dozen times and Tippetts Studio had to reinvent itself as well. Technology and commerce change, and so now we find ourselves working on immersive entertainment, multi-dimensional roller coaster ride films for the Chinese market that you would find at Universal parks. And as the box office worldwide is slumping downhill, the immersive entertainment stuff is on a vertical rise, so there’s money in it.

48H After wrapping up Mad God, what’s next for you?

PH Mad God has been something that really required everything that I’ve got, so at the end of it, I hit a brick wall and there’s nothing to do. It’s like postpartum depression, so I’m just recovering from that.

Most projects are a year to two and a half years and when you’re done, you don’t know what to do, because you’re just numb from working so hard and then there’s nothing.

But Mad God was worse because that was 30 years of that and it just compounded itself, so it took me at least a couple of months to get over it. So maybe there’d be some short film ideas, but I don’t know.

DRUNKEN FILM FEST: MAD GOD, WITH PHIL TIPPETT
Fri/4, 8 pm, $10-$12
THE NEW PARKWAY, OAKLAND.
More info here.

Cascade of flicks, star-power coming to Mill Valley Film Fest

'Honey Boy' plays at MVFF

Feel like getting the rest of the year’s movie-watching over with in 10 days? Well, you’re in luck: The Mill Valley Film Festival, which has frequently prided itself on being the awards-anticipatory Bay Area event of the season, has outdone itself in 2019. Yes, there may be a handful of prestige films that have yet to premiere anywhere, and which will duly be in contention for Oscars in a few months. But practically everything else is in MVFF this Thursday through October 13. Seriously.

Its programmers have siphoned the cream of last month’s Toronto, Telluride and Venice festivals, plus various earlier-in-the-year ones, and invited half the related talent as well. Unless you’re really psyched for the likes of Cats, Jumanji: The Next Level or Star Wars: The Rise of Luke Skywalker, you could pretty much spend the next week and a half in Marin gorging yourself, then with a clean conscience see nothing else until it’s 2020. What’s more, some of MVFF’s selections may seldom be seen again on the big screen, given the new industry reality in which even a long-awaited, 3 1/2 hour new epic from Martin Scorcese (The Irishman) is expected to basically bypass theatrical release and go straight to Netflix.

The awards hopefuls on display start with official opening nighter Just Mercy, a dramatization of a serious real-life racial injustice case that stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Fox and Brie Larson. The “Centerpiece” film on Wed/9 is Krisha and It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Schulz’s Waves, an intense and impressive fiction about an affluent African-American family in Miami coming apart at the seams from the self-applied pressure to “excel.” Closing night is shared by two films: James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, with designer Matt Damon and driver Christian Bale as men driven to challenge the seemingly unbeatable Enzo Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race; and Motherless Brooklyn, director-scenarist-star Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s cult novel about an unusual private eye in 1950s NYC.

Elsewhere, there are tributes to Swedish Film Institute CEO and industry gender-equity activist Anna Serner; actress turned Booksmart director Olivia Wilde; actor Robert Pattinson, starring in B&W period thriller The Lighthouse from The Witch’s Robert Eggers; the ex-con turned distinctive screen staple profiled in new documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo; esteemed British director Michael Apted, who’ll screen 63 Up, the latest chapter in his career-long nonfiction project; Oscar-jockeying actresses Kristen Stewart (Seberg), Alfre Woodard (Clemency) and Laura Dern. The latter is memorable as a ruthless LA divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and she’ll present that excellent new film with her director and other cast members on Sat/12.

Looking backward, the festival also presents a tribute to Barbara Rush, whose acting career over the last seven decades encompassed a huge amount of TV work as well as movie roles, and purportedly (at age 92) isn’t quite finished yet. There will be screenings of two newly restored modern classics with Bay Area ties: Nancy Kelly’s 1990 Thousand Pieces of Gold adapts Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel about a Chinese peasant girl who improbably ends up making her way amidst the Gold Rush fever of the 1880s American West; while Phil Kaufman’s 1988 The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an exquisite translation of Milan Kundera’s sensuous Czech literary love triangle.

There’s yet more awards-bait titles elsewhere in the program, including all-star drama Blackbird, Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed Parasite, Tubman biopic Harriet, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, hot-air-balloon tale The Aeronauts, Ira Sachs’ Frankie, Japanese master Kore-eda’s The Truth, Russian Beanpole, Eddie Murphy vehicle Dolemite Is My Name, Shia LeBeouf roman a clef Honey Boy, whistleblower docudrama The Report, French period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rian Johnson’s old-school mystery Knives Out, Almodovar’s latest Pain and Glory, Norwegian bestseller adaptation Out Stealing Horses, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You and Anthony Meirelles’ The Two Popes.

But there are also a number of world premieres. Among them are locally produced features like Kara Herold’s semi-animated, semi-autobiographical 39 1/2 and MVFF regular Rob Nilsson’s Arid Cut. There’s also two U.S. comedies, Prarthana Mohan’s The Miseducation of Bindu and Julio Vincent Gambuto’s Team Marco. Documentaries making their bow include Kevin McKiernan’s overview of Native American activism From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock, Emily Harris’ 60s flashback You Say You Want a Revolution?, Chikara Motomura’s Japanese printmaking odyssey Journey to Hokusai, and Sarah Feinbloom’s What Do You Believe Now?, in which she follows up with six subjects last interviewed as teens in 2002.

Other nonfiction features include ones about the Dalai Lama (The Great 14th), self-driving cars (Autonomy), Johnny Cash (The Gift), war in Syria (The Cave), Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker), bluegrass trailblazer Alice Gerrard (You Gave Me a Song), cinematic sound design (Making Waves), an American-engineered 1953 regime overthrow in Iran (Coup 53), a Scottish teen “in trouble” (Scheme Birds), a transgender woman’s challenges (Why Can’t I Be Me Around You?) veterinary holistics (The Dog Doc), a stop-motion animation innovator (Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters), the perils of “factory farming” (Right to Harm), environmental waste issues (The Story of Plastic), and the equally abhorrent man who helped make our current POTUS what he is today (Where’s My Roy Cohn?).

As ever at MVFF, there will be plenty of live musical events (as well as music-related film programs); an assortment of panels, “master classes” and workshops; numerous programs designed for family viewing; and the “5@5” bills of shorts. Special sidebars this year include Viva el Cine!, spotlighting Spanish-language cinema; “Mind the Gap”events promoting industry gender parity; a “Queer-Ish” lineup of LGBTQ-interest movies; and still more.

The 42nd Mill Valley Film Festival is held at various Marin County venues Thurs/3-October 133. Visit www.mfff.com for full program and ticketing information.

Ficks’ Picks: The best of the Toronto International Film Fest!

Our festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks had a golden ticket to all the latest films debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019. Check out his TIFF picks below, and revisit his previous coverage (full of gems you may have missed) here.  

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (USA)
For 25 years, Noah Baumbach has been making movies on par with the era’s best American filmmakers but some reason he’s been hovering just left of center. His latest, Marriage Story pits “twogether” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in two of the most jaw dropping performances of the year. Baumbach’s movies have always been laced with an understanding of film history, but this 130 minute masterpiece may finally be the one that conjures up some major recognition. Channeling the romantic humor of Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road (1967), the structural horror of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973), the guttural sadness of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the autobiographical immediacy of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992).

Based partially on Baumbach’s own experience of divorce (with Jennifer Jason Leigh), he had no clue that Johansson was going through her own divorce when he cast her. Needless to say, both leading actors give the kind of performances that can define a generation, not to mention the Best Supporting Cast of the year: Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. As I have grown up and older, Baumbach’s films have mirrored life in a certain sense. Every audience member has particular artists that they perhaps turn to, seeing somewhat of their own life reflected; Baumbach has been that for me. I’ve often pondered why his seemingly unsympathetic characters seem to rub folks a bit too abrasively. For me, it is exactly these kind of flawed features that make his stories so powerful, so personal. In fact, much like the characters within his movies, one doesn’t always want to admit to one’s self his heightened kind of honesty. Baumbach’s steady and sincere cinema has finally reached a peaking point with Marriage Story. And once you have been obliterated by this greatest work, you have an unbelievably poignant career to work your way back through.

Top 10 Noah Baumbach Films (All of which are remarkable!)
1. Marriage Story (2019)
2. Mistress America (2015)
3. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
4. Mr. Jealousy (1997)
5. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
6. Frances Ha (2012)
7. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
8. While We Were Young (2014)
9. Margot at the Wedding (2007)
10. Greenberg (2010)

Todd Phillips’ Joker (USA)
Without a doubt, Joker is the biggest surprise of 2019. Showcasing an outrageously unique performance by one of our era’s greatest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips (Hangover trilogy) has crafted a darker-than-dark anti-hero that should cause more controversy than any Hollywood blockbuster of recent years. With obvious and direct nods to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, the film’s deeper influences still have me hypnotized, days after experiencing it. In the post Q&A after its North American Premiere in Toronto, the director spoke of how capturing New York in the late 1970s/’80s was a major characteristic of the film’s experience. He most excitingly referenced Chantal Akerman’s poetic 1977 experimental documentary News From Home (a series of static shots on New York street corners combined with letters from her mother being read over the footage) as a movie he had the cast and crew study. He warned audiences that Joker was a “slow burn” and rightfully so. This study into the psyche of a broken person is based in such a terrifying detail, I found myself looking around the theater wondering if other audience members were syncing up with it as well.

It was like a 1981 triple bill of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, Brian DePalma’s Blow Out and Bruce Malmuth’s Nighthawks all wrapped up in an unofficial remake of Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017). Trading in the obvious CGI of usual super hero films for meandering magical moments, manifesting inside the main character’s maniacal, melancholy mind, made me smile. This is the kind of angry exploitation cinema that can change some people’s lives. And then of course, there were multiple couples that exited the theater in quite a huff, especially during the ruthlessly violent murder sequences. Revolutionarily political, aesthetically delicious (complete with Alice Cooper-esque make-up!) and borderline irresponsible philosophies make Joker one of the most exciting Hollywood films of the decade.

Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (France) 
Writer and director Quentin Dupieux has made another 77 minutes of absurdist perfection, this time with Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a man whose obsession with his vintage deerskin jacket leads to stunning psychotic tendencies. Emerging on 2010 with the satirical horror cult classic Rubber (a tire comes to life and kills people with its psychic powers), Quentin Dupieux (aka French synth musician Mr. Oizo) has slowly built an outstanding oeuvre of French surrealist cinema for 21st Century audiences. While genre parodies are often hard to pull off, it’s Dujardin’s commitment to the disturbed character as well as a curiously offbeat supporting role by Adèle Haenel (of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) that help reinforce Dupieux’s systematic sincerity of taking things above and beyond anything you would believe. While most of the late nite flicks this year at Toronto missed their mark, Deerskin is the perfect modern midnite movie.

Top 5 Quentin Dupieux Films
1. Rubber (2010)
2. Deerskin (2019)
3. Wrong (2013)
4. Keep an Eye Out! (2018)
5. Reality (2014)

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu (India)
Within the first 30 seconds of this mesmerizing, unstoppable, tour de force, I knew it would be my favorite film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, I loved it so much I watched it twice! Malayalam cinema (aka “Mollywood”) is the fourth biggest film industry in India and is based in the southern state of Kerala. It is supposedly known for remarkable cinematography and realistic story-driven plots. This being my first “Mollywood” experience, I was struck with the film’s hyper-kinetic camerawork and editing tempo. Following a runaway water buffalo as it literally (as well as metaphorically) upends society is the wildest cinematic ride you will take this year! Laced with an absolutely pulsating soundtrack by Prashant Pillai, a second viewing is recommended for anyone who wants to unwrap the jam-packed social and political undercurrents lingering around every corner and yet unnecessary if one wants to just get caught in the primal madness of it all. Comparable to James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and John McTiernan’s Predator (1987), this is smart Action cinema at its finest.

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (Portugal)
Winner of the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actress at this year’s 71st Locarno Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s stunningly formalist approach to documenting real people, framed gorgeously within a purposefully contrived Hollywood mise en scène, had me glued to the screen for all 124 minutes. In fact, this is the most rewarding Pedro Costa experience I have had, evoking a strong desire to go back through his entire career. For those unfamiliar with or intimidated by this Portuguese guru, Vitalina Varela is the perfect place to start. Director of Photography Leonardo Samos helps transfix the audience on its real life subject Vitalina Varela, a real person who acted in his previous film Horse Money (2014). Reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s journey through his Koker Trilogy, as the director kept digging into his country’s struggles utilizing neorealist tactics such as real locations and casting non-actors (Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (aka Life and Nothing More, 1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), he starts to uncover a truth that lay just out of reach of the previous film. I could have watched 2 more hours of this meaningful, eloquent and ultimately devastating portrait.

Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (USA)
The Safdie Brothers’ remarkable follow-up to their previous manic adventure Good Time, positions Adam Sandler not only within what could be referred to as an “anxiety-core” genre, but as a front runner for some major acting awards this year. As a fan of Adam Sandler’s early screwball comedies, I have been patiently waiting for contemporary filmmakers to utilize him in a more unique manner, or rather how Paul Thomas Anderson did things in Punch Drunk Love (2002). Noah Baumbach wrote a wonderful character for him in 2017 with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and now Josh and Bennie Safdie (along with their acting/writing partner Ronald Bronstein) have done “The Sandman” right again. In fact these maniacs have known how to keep their audiences engaged for over a decade now with their persistently perilous philosophy, paving their own particular preferences into their purposefully more popular productions. Showcasing flawed and floundering central characters in a sympathetic spotlight was a theme at this year’s TiFF, but it’s the Safdies/Bronstein documentary ingredients, combined with their (and Adam Sandler’s) love of the unscripted drama of the wide world of sports, that makes Uncut Gems so damn memorable.

Playing out like an unofficial remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), complete with Adam Sandler giving his best Harvey Keitel “hands and knees” performance, this deep dive into New York’s Jewish community, has extraordinary tempo and pacing, perhaps similar to what Sean Baker achieved in Los Angeles with Tangerine (2015). Meta-portrayals by New York City influencer Julia Fox (who is an absolute revelation in the film) as well as musician The Weeknd and retired Minnesota Timberwolves center Kevin Garnett, combined with an exemplary soundtrack by musician Oneohtrix Point Never (Good Time) who is back again this time credited as himself Daniel Lopatin, help create an intensity that never lets you go until the last credit of this 130 minute extravaganza scrolls off screen. With A24 setting the release date in December, here is a wild road map of previous movies to speed through in preparation.

Top 5 Safdie/Bronstein Brothers Films 
1. Daddy Long Legs (2009)
2. Heaven Knows What (2014)
3. Frownland (2007)
4. Uncut Gems (2019)
5. Good Time (2017)

Zacharias Kunuk’s One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Canada/Inuk)
The secret gem of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TiFF) is a truly transcendental-styled film (following Paul Schrader’s 1972 thesis to a capitol T). Canadian Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk broke onto the scene in 2001 with his earth shattering first feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which is not only the first feature film made entirely in Inuktitut (and made by an Inuk), the film was also named as the greatest Canadian film of all time by the 2015 TiFF poll. Great news: Kunuk is back (along with his Igloolik Isuma Production team) and I can genuinely say that One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is monumental.

Based on a true 1961 story of an Inuk hunter who was confronted by the Canadian government, which “encouraged” him to give up the traditional Inuit lifestyle and assimilate into a conventionally modern settlement. Cinematographer Norman Cohn (the only non-indigenous team member) helps patiently present this “day in the life” with humble alchemy, while all the acting (especially Apayata Kotierk who plays Noah Piugattuk) is both poignant and profound. This little film (running time 111 minutes) had a similar effect on me as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). While available now on IsumaTV in Canada and on iTunes in the States, I am making a desperate plea to San Francisco film programmers everywhere to bring this to a big screen.

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (USA)
Winner of the top Audience Award at TiFF this year (Grolsch People’s Choice Award), Taika Waititi’s anti-hate satire is an immensely enjoyable Wes Anderson-esque romp that has the power to win over the hearts of knee-jerk audience members, who may call into question the film’s cute portrayal of Holocaust content. In fact, I’ll be very interested in how critics process the film’s purposeful cultural appropriation of presenting German characters (living in Germany during WWII) who speak English.

Waititi, whose father is Māori of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and his mother is of Russian-Jewish descent, has been receiving massively polarized reactions to the film. His purposeful combination of screwball comedy with thoughtful cultural conversations poses a dilemma that everyone from Jerry Lewis to Roberto Benigni to Robin Williams have braved when making a comedy about the Holocaust. Waititi’s use of very iconic Jewish names is intriguing: Jojo is a famous Israeli satirical character; Elsa, which is Hebrew for joyful and noble; or, most archetypal, Rosie, whose name was made famous by Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Rosie the Riveter” and is a symbol of feminine strength. All of these traits were utilized by Wes Anderson in his most recent overlooked gem Isle of Dogs (2018) and Anderson found his film (and even himself) being chastised for being culturally insensitive or worse, racist and whitewashed. Make up your own mind on October 24th when Fox Searchlight releases the film wide. A nice warning: Scarlett Johansson’s reserved performance as Rosie has the power to sneak up on you emotionally.

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (USA)
If you are not careful, there will be much ruined in regards to Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his debut feature The VVitch (2015) if you decide to read spoiler reviews. What I would like to safely say is that this expressionist horror film was hauntingly shot in 35mm black and white photography combined with a mid-century 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Simply put, this is one of the most interesting looking films of the decade. Also noteworthy, Willem Dafoe has outdone himself in ways that I still can’t completely comprehend while Robert Pattinson has yet another remarkable performance under his belt (see Cosmopolis, The Rover, The Lost City of Z, Good Time and High Life.) I can promise you that I will be screening this as part of my personal film series MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS as soon as literally possible. But for now (A24 releases the film on October 24th), stay away from all reviews, headlines, and photos and patiently wait for an experience that you will remember decades from now.

TOP 3 WAVELENGTHS (EXPERIMENTAL) SHORT FILMS

Deborah Stratman’s Vever (For Barbara) (USA)
Showcasing close to 10 minutes of unused footage of a trip Barbara Hammer took down to Guatemala in 1975, this gorgeously shot 16mm color film feels more like a lost ethnographic study by Chick Strand than either Deborah Stratman or Barbara Hammer. Added to that is the recontextualization of a legendary musical score from a tremendously important experimental film, giving the film enough layers of the past to warrant one of the TiFF’s most thoughtful films

Luke Fowler’s Cézanne (UK/France)
Paying homage to Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire oil paintings from 1902-04, Scottish filmmaker Luke Fowler collaged seven minutes of gorgeously filmed 16mm footage, captured near the home of the Post-Impressionist French painter. Fowler’s  “hop, skip and a jump” stye of editing (reminiscent of Jonas Mekas’ diary films) is the perfect time capsule reimagining the painter’s use of light within nature. A wonderfully subtle soundtrack by field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda is the absolute apple and pear on top.

Philipp Fleischmann’s Austrian Pavilion (Austria) 
WARNiNG: Spoiler-alert – Reading about Philipp Fleischmann’s “site-specific camera” which was specially constructed, perhaps reaching close to 25 feet in length, makes his four-minute silent film all the more intriguing. But in no way was it necessary for me to be absolutely transfixed by this “upside down,” vertically rotating, flicker-fest. While only being 247 seconds long, each frame of haunted trees spinning downward suddenly become horizontally confined from what seem to be an unknown outside force. Bright red flares, windows frames and archways of the interior and exterior of the national arts pavilion in Venice’s Giardini are intermittently attacked which somehow seems to flip the world right side up. The film concludes with a truly unexpected choice that has had me biting my lips incessantly for some reason, days after.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at Bay Area movie theaters. He is also member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.

A Green Film Festival to fire you up

A scene from 'Anthropocene: The Human Epoch'

In organizing the San Francisco Green Film Festival, executive director Rachel Caplan has several things she’d like to see come out of the six nights of film from September 24 to the 29th—including getting people fired up, inspiring them, and igniting change. 

The theme of this year’s festival, the ninth, is “home”: what it means to you and what to do to protect it. 

“We hope the films spark conversations,” Caplan said. ”There are many important ideas including affordable housing and habitat loss with 60 films and 100 guest speakers from 21 countries from Senegal to Sweden.”

Caplan called the opening night movie, Push, a real world conspiracy thriller about the global housing crisis. This is Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s fourth film at the festival after Bananas!*Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, and Bikes vs. Cars, and it follows Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, as she travels the world, trying to understand who’s being pushed out of cities and why. Both Gertenn and Farha are expected at the September 24 screening at the Castro Theater.  

At the festival’s preview at San Francisco’s SPUR offices, Caplan talked about some of the other movies they will be screening. There are several films set at the Mexico-United States border, including Ay Mariposa set in the Lower Rio Grand Valley in Texas about the divineness of the border wall, and The River and The Wall, with friends traveling by canoe, horses and bike along the southern border to document the potential impacts of the border wall on the natural environment. 

The movie Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, about the reengineering of the planet, will have its San Francisco premiere on September 25 at the Roxie Theater, a UN Climate Action Summit national screening event. 16 Sunrises, the closing night film on September 29, also at the Roxie, is set aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts witness an evolving planet.

“We wanted to end in space,” Caplan said  “There’s so much going on on the planet, we wanted to take a cosmic perspective, where they see 16 sunrises every day and have a unique perspective on home.”

The festival is more than movies, Caplan said – it is a movement, with an activist center with happy hours, and a partnership with the Consulate General of Switzerland, Swissnex, and the Exploratorium. The festival has collaborated with these organizations to take over Piers 15 and 17 on September 26, with a fog bridge and a labyrinth of interactive eco- arts exhibits. 

SAN FRANCISCO GREEN FILM FESTIVAL
Sept. 24-29

Various locations
Tickets and more information here

‘American Factory’ a tale of two blue collars: US and Chinese

'American Factory'

As the United States grows more urbanized and service-oriented—not to mention politically polarized—the image of the blue collar factory worker becomes more remote to many, something of a composite character from a song by Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. The Rust Belt is more a mental landscape of ruin porn and abandoned dreams than a thriving nexus of American innovation and labor.

But American Factory (out August 21 on Netflix)—the latest eye-opening docudrama from acclaimed producer-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, A Lion in the House, Seeing Red)—about the closing and reopening of a factory outside of Dayton, OH, really brings blue collar workers back into focus and reminds us why paying attention to their existence and transformation is crucial.

Reichert and Bognar had previously lived in Dayton for decades, so they bring a unique sensitivity and understanding to the hardships that these factory workers face. They start their film poignantly, with the announcement on December 23, 2008, that the General Motors Plant in Moraine, OH, is closing. If this closure was ignored by most Americans, it certainly wasn’t by the thousands of longtime employees left without any source of income.

Just one year into the Great Recession, jobs were hard to recoup, particularly in an area already in an economic decline since the shrinking of the area’s once-powerful industrial sector in the early 1980s. Homes were foreclosed upon, vehicles lost, and the American Dream seemed like a lie.

The documentary next picks up in 2016, when the same factory is reopened. Not by GM nor another US manufacturer, but by Fuyao Glass Industry Group, one of the largest auto glass producers in the world, supplying major automobile manufacturers—including Ford, GM, BMW, Honda, and Bentley—with car and truck windows, windshields, and sunroofs. The Chinese company dubs its new American outpost Fuyao Glass America.

Early on, there is an air of excitement as Fuyao, run by Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, invests hundreds of millions of dollars into the new factory and creates thousands of jobs for area residents. Shift hours would remain the same as they had been at GM, many employees would be rehired (rounded out by Chinese immigrants), and the company would maintain its American identity.

‘American Factory’

Dewang, referred to as The Chairman or Chairman Cao by employees, says through his interpreter, on one of his first visits to his premier American outpost: “I love Ohio and I love the place where I invest significantly here in Dayton.”

Company Vice President Dave Burrows mirrors his new boss’s sentiment that the deal is very pro-American. “This is a historic project that is going to help grow this community, give people jobs, and give a future to your kids and my kids,” he says. “The future is bright.”

Many of the Americans, who are used to camaraderie among their peers on the factory floor, desperately cling to the hope that they’re still “all as one.” But the melding of Eastern and Western cultures proves more difficult than anyone anticipated. When Chairman Cao’s unrealistic first months’ profit goals aren’t met and the American employees begin complaining about unfair and unsafe working conditions, the Chinese executives act quickly and fiercely.

The Chairman fires President John Gauthier and VP Dave Burrows and every other American with any power, replacing them with Chinese employees. Lower-level Chinese employees, who were originally encouraged to integrate into liberal American culture are now trained to reject the US and its way of life.

Americans, now referred to as “foreigners,” are regarded as lazy, since they only work eight hours a day with two breaks and get weekends off—in contrast with the Chinese, who work 12-hour shifts and only take one day a week off. American fingers are deemed “too fat” to operate certain machines.

“We need to use our wisdom to guide and help them because we are better than them,” says new Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Liu.

‘American Factory’

Nationalism and xenophobia are sweeping the company from the top down. The Chairman reminds Chinese employees that they come from Chinese mothers and that China, not America, will always be their home. Chinese posters and flags appear everywhere inside the factory, and propaganda videos of Chinese children singing and praying fill the breakroom where American employees eat.

Reichert and Bognar’s candid interviews with the American employees inside and outside the workplace help to personalize their painful new reality, as they’re expected to work twice as hard for half their previous pay at GM.

Bobby, a furnace offloader, can’t work up to Fuyao’s standards and ends up at home with a workplace injury. Shawnea, a glass inspector, can no longer provide for her family in the same way. Rob, a furnace supervisor, is terminated for taking two to three minutes to pull up a report. Jill, a forklift operator, desperately battling her way back to middle class after losing everything, is now fighting for better working conditions.

Soon 11 safety complaints are filed against Fuyao Glass America. Still others claim employees are receiving unfair treatment by their Chinese supervisors.

Tempting as it may be, the documentarians are careful not to crucify the Chinese employees. It devotes as much time and understanding to them as they do to their American colleagues.  Most of the Chinese immigrants, for example, are not only working for low wages themselves, but are also dealing with the added pressures of moving to an unfamiliar country far from their families and hardly speaking any English.

Wong, a furnace engineer for over 20 years, with multiple burns on his arms to prove it, is particularly tender toward the Americans. Surviving on a two-Twinkie-a-day lunch, he says he misses his life back in China with his family and admits to crying when no one else is around. He also complains that his people have become too greedy. Quickly making friends with his American colleagues, whom he begins to regard as “brothers,” he has a harder time chastising them.

“I think the most important thing is mutual understanding,” he says later, after realizing how hard Americans work, some of them two to three jobs just to make ends meet on their reduced salaries. “I always thought Americans lived a comfortable and superior life. I thought they didn’t have to make sacrifices.”

Even Chairman Cao is given an opportunity to redeem himself, on a visit to a temple back in his Fuqing, Fujian province in China. Between shots of him praying, he wistfully reminisces about the poor and undeveloped pastoral China of his youth. He also admits to being happier living among the croaking frogs, chirping bugs, and blooming flowers.

“Now I live in a new era of prosperity and modernity but I have a sense of loss,” he says. “Have I taken the peace away and destroyed the environment? I don’t know if I’m a contributor or a sinner.”

But any chance of finding common ground between the Chinese and Americans is quashed when the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union begins to push for the company to unionize. To Chairman Cao, the union is a dark, subversive force that will decrease the company’s efficiency, but to the disempowered Americans, it’s their only way to regain their lost voices.

The Chairman is not interested in hearing them, but he’s all ears when a hired band performs a song about lean manufacturing at one of his corporate events. His dream of achieving maximum output using minimum employees is finally in reach as he begins cutting workers and replacing them with robotic arms in the name of speed and efficiency.

With The Chairman’s initiatives in place, Fuyao Glass America finally starts to show a profit. But the documentary—the first of seven projects from the former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company, Higher Ground—seems to ask, “At what cost?” That’s left to audiences to answer for themselves.

‘American Factory’

The filmmakers and the Obamas have stressed that they want to stay out of politics with the documentary, simply showing things as they are without taking sides.

That’s why the elephant in the room during the making of the film, Trump’s campaign for president, is noticeably pushed out, except when State Sen. Sherrod Brown complains that both of the 2016 US presidential candidates disparagingly refer to the manufacturing heartland as the “Rust Belt,” and Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Liu tells employees, “Let’s make American great again.”

But that doesn’t mean that the film is without political undertones. Audiences might remember that Trump won the 2016 presidential election largely because he carried states like Ohio by falsely promising to put factory workers, like the ones in the film, back to work. Also, it’s impossible to watch this documentary without contemplating how the ramifications of the US’s rivalry with China over the last two decades and Trump’s ongoing tariffs against China will impact Fuyao’s future operations.

The filmmakers understand that the greatest problem raised in American Factory can’t be solved by a divided nation or international trade wars. So they leave viewers with a message of unity, recommending that America and China and Democrats and Republicans all band together to battle what they call one of the biggest employment crises of the 21st century—automation—expected to impact over 375 million people globally.

AMERICAN FACTORY
Premieres Wed/21
Netflix
More info here.

‘The Great Hack’: They’ve got your data, and yes they’ve used it

British writer Paul Hilder in 'The Great Hack' on Netflix

Social network Facebook has faced fierce criticism for its dubious privacy practices for years. In the beginning, it was tracking user activity via “Like” button clicks and selling it to advertisers along with personally identifiable information. This info would be used to serve users with relevant digital ads.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Internet as a reality, the ads don’t bother me all that much,” says a student in a Parsons School of Design ad targeting class, in the beginning of Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s new Netflix documentary The Great Hack, out July 24. Then she pauses for a moment as if reevaluating her comment, before asking, “When does it turn sour?”

That’s what her instructor, David Carroll—an associate professor at Parsons teaching digital media and developing apps—and a slew of others including journalists and politicians aim to uncover in the highly informative, almost two-hour expose of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Being served relevant ads for products and services like microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries, refrigerators, and color TVs is one thing.

But once the news broke in March of 2018 that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, to steal the personal data of 87 million-plus users, intending to target them with propaganda in order to sway their votes in the 2016 presidential election in the US and Brexit in the UK, the public finally began to understand the dangers of sharing their personal data with the social media giant.

The thrilling documentary, which follows the Cambridge Analytica scandal as it happened, demonstrates that the consequences of this breach in user trust is worse than ever previously imagined. But how did Facebook go from a “connected world where everybody could share each others’ experiences and feel less alone” to a battlefield that divided nations?

Such a transformation required a lot of effort and “The Great Hack” introduces many of the key players in the scandal, explaining their roles and motivations.

There’s Alexander Nix, the former CEO of the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, which billed itself as the world’s leading data-driven communications firm on the path to becoming a billion-dollar company. Nix, who doesn’t take part in the film but appears in plenty of footage, including a damning hidden video, had already used communication warfare to help sway elections in developing countries and felt that his “weapon-grade” tactics on Facebook were finally perfected enough to use on Britain and the US.

Focused on building a strong elections business for Republican politicians in the US, Cambridge Analytica started working with Ted Cruz and propelled him to a Republican nomination frontrunner. Once Trump secured the spot, however, the company began working with him, using the existing voter data and research that it had already collected.

Carole Cadwalladr broke the Cambridge Analytica story for the Guardian.

But how did the company amass its 5000 data points on every American user in the US? Enter ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie. Wylie was the first of whistleblower prepared to talk to Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist for The Guardian who broke the story of Cambridge Analytica and its connection to the Brexit campaign.

Wylie is the data scientist who helped set up the company’s “full-service propaganda machine” by first getting his paws on University of Cambridge research associate Aleksandr Kogan’s app that allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect the personal details of millions of Facebook users.

Facebookers would be presented with a personality quiz, for example, and the underlying app had special permission to harvest not only their data, including status updates, likes, work info, payments, and locations but also that of their friends. So with a couple hundred thousand profiles, Cambridge Analytica could now make predictions about their personalities, which can deduce behavior, and ultimately voting choices. Now it was time to target every “persuadable” voter in the US, with fear-stoking personalized content — blogs, websites, articles, videos, and ads—so they’d vote more conservatively, experimenting with psychology to obstruct the traditional democratic process.

But is Wylie coming forward because he’s repentant or bitter? Julian Wheatland, the former COO/CFO of Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group, is the sole establishment figure interviewed in the film. He mourns the demise of the company that he believes was a hotbed of innovation—and suggests that Wylie only came forward as a whistleblower because, after leaving Cambridge Analytica for another company in 2014, he was resentful about losing the Trump account to Cambridge Analytica.

But the most compelling voice in the film has to be Brittany Kaiser’s. The one-time idealistic intern in former president Barack Obama’s groundbreaking political campaign, she helped run his Facebook account—and revolutionize the way social media reaches voters—before turning to human rights campaigning and lobbying. When she didn’t see the monetary gain she had hoped for, she was only too eager to take her expertise to Cambridge Analytica in December of 2014 and pitch far-right political companies as the company’s new Director of Business Development.

Yet after Cambridge Analytica closed and a friend asked her if this was how she wanted to be remembered by history, she switched sides yet again. With the encouragement of British writer Paul Hilder, whose own goal is to shine a light on how data’s been misused and abused, Kaiser, who’s been hiding out from “two administrations and the most powerful companies in the world” in infinity pools in Thailand, is ready to come clean about her former company’s nefarious activities.

On her way to testifying before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s fake news inquiry, to which Wylie and Nix were also compelled to give testimony, she says she’s “not that interested in standing up for powerful white men anymore who obviously don’t have everybody’s best interest at heart.”

Brittany Kaiser went from Obama employee, to Cambridge Analytica executive, to whistleblower.

What’s troubling is that Kaiser, who so eloquently describes how Cambridge Analytica swayed voters on engagement-heavy Facebook, can also say without irony, “The problem in politics is that people can’t understand or work together so nothing gets done,” without understanding her role in perpetuating that divide.

In another scene, after it emerges that during Kaiser’s time with Cambridge Analytica she’d traveled to Russia, visited with WikiLeaks founder Jullian Assange (who leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails after they were stolen by Russia), and donated to WikiLeaks, the former Business Development director who first pitched the Trump campaign can’t fathom why she’d be perceived to be at the center of “some big, crazy thing.”

At other points, she seems to alternate between defensiveness and glee about her part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In one particularly strange moment, she gets giggly when Nix, her former boss, mentor, and friend, texts her with some kind words and a winking emoji after she testifies before the DCMS fake news inquiry. It’s as if she’s still under the spell of the man who upon meeting her threatened to get her drunk so she’d spill all of her secrets.

Noticeably absent from the film is Facebook. The closest viewers get is a quick interview with Facebook-investor-turned-critic Roger McNamee, who claims he had once attempted to admonish Facebook about creating a set of tools that allowed advertisers to exploit that emotional, fear, and anger audience with individual-level targeting. There is also a few minutes of footage of Mark Zuckerberg denying any knowledge of working with Cambridge Analytica or providing anything other than sales support to the Trump campaign while testifying before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees.

Even though Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy and closed in the wake of the scandal, Facebook remains widely used and is still a targeted platform for election meddling. But the story is bigger than even Facebook.

As professor Carroll and journalist Cadwalladr point out, we mustn’t stop the inquiries into how tech companies, “the good ones,” run by “nice guys in hoodies connecting the world” including Twitter, Alphabet, and many more, are still using and misusing our data.

For Carroll, it meant attempting to get his data from SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company in Great Britain, so he can learn how our digital traces on apps that are supposed to connect us, like Facebook, which was used to incite genocide in Myanmar, and WhatsApp, which was recently implicated in the dissemination of fake news that swayed Brazil’s elections, are being used against us.

For Cadwalladr, it’s about whether it’s possible to ever have a free or fair election again. After an 18-month investigation, the UK Parliament ruled “no” as long as Facebook and other tech giants remain unaccountable.

So the journalist makes an appeal to tech leaders, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jack Dorsey at a recent TED Talk, asking, “Is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you, as the handmaidens to authoritarianism?”

Then she turns to the audience. “And my question to everybody else is, ‘Is this what we want? To sit back and play with our phones as darkness falls?’”

In other words, instead of joining that next Facebook Group or watching a fake Nancy Pelosi video on the app, users’ time might be better spent off the app fighting authoritarianism, at least until the social media giant begins putting customers ahead of diabolical advertisers.

THE GREAT HACK
Premieres Wed/24
Netflix
More info here.

Jewish Film Festival sparks with romance, tragedy, fiddler on roof

'Curtiz'

Though it has programmed its share of controversial fare over the years, the 39th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will open this Thursday with perhaps the most non-controversial movie imaginable: A documentary about Fiddler on the Roof (see details below), probably the most beloved, not to mention inescapable, stage musical ever.

Eleven days later the fest will wade into more characteristically political waters with The Red Sea Diving Resort, a fact-based drama with Chris Evans, Alessandro Nivola, Ben Kingsley and other luminaries. It portrays the efforts about four decades ago to smuggle Jewish refugees from religious persecution in Ethiopia to safety in Israel.

That’s hardly the end of JFF 2019, however, since as usual the event’s Castro Theatre residency (July 18-28) will be overlapped and/or followed by ones elsewhere around the Bay Area: July 20-25 at Palo Alto’s Cinearts, July 25-Aug. 1 at Berkeley’s Albany Twin, and Aug. 2-4 at both Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre and Marin’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. Here’s a survey of some highlights:

Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles
Once the longest-running show in Broadway history (its original hitch was for eight years), Fiddler on the Roof is no longer even in the top 10. But you could still make a case for it as possibly the most popular stage musical ever, given numerous touring editions, innumerable amateur and school productions, multiple major revivals, enduring international success, and so forth. It never became an “old” musical in the way that most other hugely popular ones did, and it will surely still be raking in the royalties when Wicked, Cats and even A Chorus Line finally fade into the theatrical past.

This opening-night documentary looks at the 45-year phenomenon adapted from Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories, which seemed one of Broadway’s riskier gambles in 1964 yet has played continuously around the world since. Admirers from Stephen Sondheim to Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda are among those discussing its influence in a film that also draws upon rich, diverse archival materials.

Other documentaries of note in the program run a subject gamut encompassing underwater photography (Picture Of His Life), the Catskills resort circuit’s craze for Afro-Cuban music (The Mamboniks), “the Palestine question” (Advocate, Afterward), the Holocaust (Made in Auschwitz, You Only Die Twice), anti-Semitism on the left (This Is Personal), expanding U.S. Hasidic communities (City of Joel), late Russian-Jewish emigre actor Anton Yelchin (Love, Antosha), cool jazz (It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story), current immigration currents (The Passengers, The Rabbi Goes West), and more—including the self-explanatory politician portraits Golda and King Bibi.

Curtiz and Carl Laemmle
Scratch a racist of any stripe—amazing how easy they are to find these days—and it generally takes no time at all to get them parroting age-old conspiracy theories about how the Jews control “everything,” from international economics (of course) to Hollywood. Well, they’re at least somewhat right about that last part: Perhaps precisely because the movie industry wasn’t initially considered “respectable,” Jewish entrepreneurs, executives and artists got a firm early foothold, and continue to be arguably better-represented than in many other professions. (Even though some distanced themselves from any ethic or religious identity by changing their names, particularly back in the day.) These new features look at two of the greatest such contributors to Hollywood’s first decades.

Curtiz is a biographical drama about Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian expat who became one of Warner Brothers’ leading directors, helming classic vehicles for Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Bogart, Cagney, Joan Crawford (notably Mildred Pierce) and others. Fellow countryman Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s debut feature is a B&W period piece that re-creates the conflicts behind the scenes of 1942’s Casablanca—now considered a world classic, as well as Curtiz’s most famed achievement. But its making was fraught with problems, from an unfinished script to the Jewish director’s own family woes, including fears (which turned out to be all too well-founded) that his relatives back in Europe were in grave danger under Nazi occupation.

James L. Freedman’s documentary Carl Laemmle celebrates the legacy of another immigrant, who went from operating nickelodeons to founding Universal Pictures, one of Hollywood’s great movie studios. When financial woes during the Great Depression (including a series of flops championed by his son Carl Jr.) forced Laemmle to sell Universal, he used that money to rescue hundreds of Jews from his native Germany—dying just days after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, at age 72. It’s a remarkable rags-to-riches story whose successes include the launching of “Universal Monsters” Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who almost single-handedly invented the screen horror genre.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
It’s a testament to the simultaneous “democratization” of the internet and the shrinking relevance of the written word that this documentary tribute to the late New Yorker movie reviewer has to keep explaining who Kael was and why she mattered—things that were well-known to every film lover not so long ago. But viewers under 40 may well find it weird that a professional critic (practically an insult in itself these days) in a weekly magazine not only wielded great influence, but was considered one of her era’s most significant writers.

Whether you agreed with her sometimes-controversial taste or not, Kael made reading about the movies exciting, and personal. She sought to replicate the adrenaline rush of the popular cinema itself in the headlong energy of her prose. Starting out as a repertory house and radio taste-maker in Berkeley, hers was assertive, sometimes blunt personality who not-infrequently ruffled the feathers of her editors as well as offended filmmakers. Rob Garver’s posthumous portrait is a good introduction to her work, though more knowledgable fans may puzzle over the choice of clips—some from films she wasn’t enthused or didn’t even write about.

Other films in JFF this year of particular local interest include Seder-Masochism, former SF resident Nina Paley’s first feature since the delightful Sita Sings the Blues—another animated wonder for grownups, this one bringing her impudent humor and rich visual imagination to bear on stories from the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments, it isn’t.

Fig Tree and Dolce Fine Giornata
The flight of Jews from Ethiopia depicted by an all-star cast in the closing-night U.S. production The Red Sea Diving Resort noted above is portrayed from a different angle in Aalam-Warque Davidian’s semi-autobiographical first feature, Fig Tree. Set in 1989, it focuses on a 16-year-old girl largely oblivious to the roiling political conflicts that have not yet reached her village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. But they will, and her elders are increasingly frantic to gain passage to Israel before hit by the sectarian violence that has already terrorized Jews elsewhere in their nation. It’s a fine, subtle, complex coming-of-age story, capturing both the self-absorption of youth and the deceptive calm that precedes

Another very good foreign drama is Polish director Jacek Borcuch’s Dolce Fine Giornata, with that country’s veteran star Krystyna Janda as a Nobel-winning expat poet. Her rather idyllic life in the Tuscan countryside is imperiled when she uses a public podium to say something about terrorism—an ambiguous, poorly-contextualized statement that instantly goes “viral,” creating controversy in the worst possible sense. At once a complicated ensemble piece and an arresting portrait of bold (sometimes even obnoxious) “artistic temperament” in a politically-correct era, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead, its presents a number of troubling issues and thorny personalities you’ll have to sort out yourself.

Other international highlights in the program include Sameh Zoabi’s political-crossfire comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, the bittersweet French My Polish Honeymoon, sardonic Russian The Humorist, and Mexican drama Leona.

Adam
The titular character played by Nicholas Alexander is a No. Cal. high schooler who finagles his way out of another summer with his helicopter parents by proposing he visit his older sister in Manhattan. Casey (Margaret Qualley) is a college student already jadedly blase about the gender-blurred LGBTQ scene she hangs in, and which she tosses Adam sans preamble. How is virginal little bro ever going to find a girlfriend in this crowd of variably butch dykes? To his surprise, he sparks with Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez)—realizing too late that she has assumed he is a transgender person somewhere along the female-to-male transition line. Being 16, of course he’s too embarrassed to clarify her error.

Like the graphic novel by Ariel Shrag that it’s based on, Rhys Ernst’s debut feature was somewhat controversial at Sundance for the perceived tastelessness of its “mistaken identity” premise. But Adam (which does have several transgender performers in its cast) is hardly a crass exploitative of a trendy cultural theme. Instead, it’s a sweetly engaging portrait of youthful inexperience getting schooled on today’s complex gender issues in a comically unlikely (yet credibly portrayed) crash-course manner. This charming movie defuses a lot of topics older viewers may perceive as a political minefield.

Additional titles of gay interest in JFF 2019 include the documentaries Latter Day Jew, about a Mormon-raised midwestern queer comedian’s religious conversion at age 35, and Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, which centers on the Swedish electropop band’s frontman Jean-Pierre Barda and his decision to “return” to Israel as a man of French-Algerian Jewish heritage.

The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs Thurs/18-Sun 28 at the Castro Theatre in SF. It also plays through August 4 at various Palo Alto, Albany, Oakland and San Rafael locations. See www.sfjff.org for complete details.

Lulu Wang on good lies and immigrant family ties in ‘The Farewell’

Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell.' Photo by Nick West/Courtesy of A24

Director Lulu Wang’s films are built on secrets and lies.

Her 2014 directorial debut, Posthumous, explores what happens when a struggling artist (Jack Huston), who learns that his work is more valuable after his “death,” concocts a shady scheme to reap the rewards of his “posthumous” success.

Her second and most recent movie, The Farewell (opening Friday), follows a young Chinese-American woman named Billi (Awkwafina), who returns with her family to China for what on the surface appears to be a big red envelope wedding.

But, in actuality, the wedding is just a ruse so the family can gather around its head matriarch, Billi’s beloved and terminally ill grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), one last time. Complicating matters further, the family has decided not to tell Nai-Nai (grandmother in Chinese) about her impending fate.

The lying by omission to maintain Nai-Nai’s joyful spirit in her final weeks in this semi-autobiographical film hits close to home for Wang, whose own family has kept the director’s now 86-year-old grandmother from discovering her own dire health prognosis.

I spoke to Wang about her grandmother, her decision to keep her new film judgment-free, and how, looked at differently, lies can be another way of getting at the truth.

48 HILLS I have to start by asking, how is your grandmother doing now?  

LULU WANG She does have cancer, but she’s still alive. She’s 86 and has outlived the doctor’s prognosis of three months to live. But she’s not doing great. It’s not a very positive story. She’s been around much longer and got to see me direct the movie but still doesn’t know.

48 HILLS When Billi says, in the film, that she thinks it’s wrong that her family keep this secret from her grandmother, her uncle tells her that while she’s been out West and has been influenced to think more independently, in China it’s all about putting the family’s happiness first. In other words, not telling Nai-Nai and watching her become dispirited is the best way to ensure everyone’s happiness. 

As someone who’s lived in the East and the West, how have these opposing ways of thinking impacted your life?

LULU WANG I think it’s very complicated because, in many ways, yes, the Eastern philosophy is that the collective as a unit is more important than the individual, and it’s the way society functions, for the greater good.

But, at the same time, my parents left China to come to America to live the American dream and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to give me a better life. So, in many ways, they must also believe in the Western values of individualism and independence.

So yeah, I think it’s difficult, because I still struggle with it, like how much will I do for myself? How much do I do for my family and where do those two things intercept?

Director Lulu Wang on set. Photo by Casi Moss /Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS You don’t seem to judge those who choose to keep the secret from Nai-Nai as harshly as others might. Because the secret is never uncovered, no one gets into trouble and there’s no cathartic moment like there is at the end of films like “Tootsie,” “Secrets and Lies,” or “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” 

LULU WANG Yeah, that’s where something is so fundamentally Western. Even this idea of “We’re writing a screenplay and a screenplay has to have a climax and it’s gotta have catharsis.” Says who? Life doesn’t work that way. We don’t oftentimes get catharsis, denouement, and resolution. I also think part of the drama and part of the climax is this desire for catharsis, and the more you want it, what does that do to a person?

So instead of having a real catharsis, I looked more for the moment the characters, who are performing joy, are performing a wedding for the sake of the grandmother, broke down and showed their humanity. When you are inauthentic, there comes a time when you just lose it and that’s a very human thing regardless of what culture you’re from and what you believe your behavior should be.

48 HILLS One of the interesting things that happens in the film is that a family with such different points of view can still come together. With politics tearing many families apart in 2019, this couldn’t be more timely.

LULU WANG I think, as an immigrant, I’ve always had to negotiate between two different cultures and different worlds, not just China and America, but also my family versus my friends, my school, and my own independence.

When I was younger, it used to be this push and pull, where it felt like a war between these two different sides. But as I get older, it’s about how to bring all of these things together. So this movie is very much that same kind of melding, of saying we don’t have to pick a side.

What most people say is that one thing has to be wrong so they can be right. I don’t want to contribute to that kind of divide, so I don’t want to make a film that’s ultimately about judgment. Instead, the film is an exploration of differences and not even about agreeing to these differences. It’s about how do you disagree in a respectful way. Maybe something is not right for you, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also wrong for them.

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in ‘The Farewell.’ Photo by Casi Moss/Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS With both Posthumous and The Farewell, you’ve certainly demonstrated an interest in stories built around lies. What’s the appeal?

LULU WANG As a storyteller, I’m very interested in the stories that we tell each other and the stories that we tell ourselves to get through life. It’s the way that we are able to own our own narrative and justify decisions that we make. Guilt only exists through storytelling. If you tell yourself you don’t feel bad about that, then there’s no guilt, right? I believe that we all do it all the time and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s just a survival mechanism.

I think in both stories, what I found is that even though people are lying, they’re getting at a greater truth. And the lie doesn’t take up all the importance. That in many ways, the lie is the surface and there are deeper truths to excavate that we can get to even though we may be telling a fiction.

And that’s what I do, too, right? I’ve made a fictionalized film. It’s autobiographical in some ways, but it’s a fictionalized version. But it was actually only through fictionalizing that I was able to get to some of the deeper truths.

THE FAREWELL
Opens Fri/19
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here.

Vanessa Williams on her fearless Frameline ‘Luv Tale’

'A Luv Tale'

Professional growth was always critical for actress Vanessa Williams. Going from supporting roles like gun moll Keisha in 1991’s crime thriller New Jack City and aerobics instructor Rhonda on Fox’s primetime soap opera “Melrose Place,” to the meatier role of mother Maxine on Showtime series “Soul Food,” she was always game to test her acting mettle.

But when it came time to portray Candice, a high-powered businesswoman in Sidra Smith’s A Luv Tale: The Series (playing June 27 at Frameline)—an eight-episode dramedy, examining the lives, loves, and careers of four girlfriends of color—she dove into something new.

“As an actor, I want to evolve and do things that I haven’t done before, so I’m always looking for characters with a twist,” she told 48 Hills. “Certainly, this character is a woman who’s nothing like any character I’ve played before.”

Unlike Williams, Candice follows the rules, doesn’t make waves, and allows her husband to lead. She’s also forced to grapple with her feelings for Taylor, a young artist whom she encounters at a Harlem bar. To complicate matters further, Taylor happens to be a woman.

Williams spoke with 48 Hills about playing gay for the first time, what she learned about herself in the process, and how a series like “A Luv Tale,” which screens at the Frameline film festival on June 27, can inspire cultural change.

48 HILLS Talk to me about your first experience playing a gay character.

VANESSA WILLIAMS When I first heard about it, I thought, “Oh, this is a very interesting and extremely provocative role for someone who doesn’t identify as a lesbian.” So it was a little bit scary in terms of how will I be seen and how the sex scenes might be represented on screen.

But once I read the project and got to know the roots of the storyline and what I could bring to it, I thought, “OK, this is an interesting and dynamic project to be involved with.”

48 HILLS Did playing the role of a closeted woman hiding in an unhappy marriage bring more of an understanding of what the LGBTQ community has to face?

VANESSA WILLIAMS What I learned from playing the role was that it wasn’t such a departure because love is love as is sexual energy and prowess because anyone can turn you on if you lay back and let it happen and vice versa.

So my whole thing was the letting down of the guard to be able to explore, and it was a nice way to explore a different kind of human connection without having to put a label on it. It was like a perk, like, “Oh, I get to be this person now who kisses girls and isn’t that fun?” It was a release to allow yourself to be in that situation, so it was beautiful. And I was like “Oh, I get this. It’s not my flavor, but I get it.”

48 HILLS What’s the value in bringing a story like this to light in 2019?

VANESSA WILLIAMS I was happy that the response we’ve gotten so far is that people who’ve seen me in other roles felt some sort of validation from having a straight actor shine a light on their experience.

I felt very honored to bring whatever value I have as an artist to this story because maybe some people who wouldn’t necessarily look at a story like this will now because I’m in it. So if I can bring my talents to tell this story about a part of my community that’s been ignored, marginalized, and not celebrated, then I’m down to do it, so others can take this ride with us.

48 HILLS A story about four black LGBTQ women seems so groundbreaking, even in 2019.  But we’ve come so far since your breakout role on “Melrose Place,” playing a side character among an otherwise all-Caucasian cast, who was quickly written off after just one season. 

VANESSA WILLIAMS It’s revolutionary and I’m really proud to have been a part of that forward-moving trajectory. I also played the love interest of a bisexual black man in the film Punks. So in terms of my advocacy for the LGBTQ community, both in my work as an actress and as 1st Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Black AIDS Institute, it’s about a love for my community and all the different ways that it lives and loves.

I re-watched Paris is Burning over the weekend and seeing those stars of the documentary talking about their pain, anguish, and longing to be loved and accepted is heartbreaking. But seeing how the needle has moved from being a pipe dream that can only be manufactured in the Elks Lodge in Harlem to being on the “Pose” show on FX and at the Met Ball, where Billy Porter comes out and slays, is amazing.

He and the other folks whose shoulders he stands on have been preparing for this moment all of their lives, so it’s just a victorious day to see that now we’re ready to have the whole kit and kaboodle.

48 HILLS You’ve said before that the reason your character was written off “Melrose Place” was that the show’s writers didn’t make the effort to hire a black writer or ask you things that would help them better write to the black experience. That seems to be happening less today.

VANESSA WILLIAMS Even when [Caucasian] people are trying to be inclusive, they can only tell that story from their experience of privilege and who their friends are, so certain things won’t occur to them.

What is certainly moving the trajectory forward with its being more authentic and people getting to truly see themselves is the inclusion of black and other people of color in the writer’s room saying how this story or character should play out.

48 HILLS In “A Luv Tale,” you play a woman on the down low, and as an actress working in the entertainment industry all these years, you must have encountered a lot of people in the same situation. Do you see a day when more prominent actors will feel comfortable enough to come out publicly?

VANESSA WILLIAMS As a woman of a certain age, of course I’ve experienced the down-low phenomenon as it relates to the African-American community.

So to the extent that people, particularly younger people, who’ve benefited from all this conversation and needle-moving, become more self-aware and feel the freedom to live honestly, it becomes a conversation that people are more willing to have.

I’ve been around to witness a bunch of cultural shifts and the kind of storytelling you’ll see in “A Luv Tale” is part of that vital cultural change.

“A LUV TALE: THE SERIES”
June 27, 6:45pm, $20
Castro Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.