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Thread: San Francisco International Film Festival 2014

  1. #16
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    HEAVEN ADORES YOU (Nikolas Dyland Rossi 2014)

    NIKOLAS DYLAN ROSSI: HEAVEN ADORES YOU (2014)



    A sensitive singer songwriter who sadly died too young

    Eliott Smith was a talented singer songwriter, born in Omaha, lived in Dallas, fled to Portland in his mid-teens, became famous after his song Miss Misery was nominated for an Oscar, moved to New York, then to Los Angeles. He became seriously involved in drugs and alcohol touring and in L.A., and died at the age of 34 of two stab wounds to the chest that may or may not have been self-inflicted. This little documentary is just talking heads, music cuts and performance videos with too many poetic shots of Portland suburbs and big city skylines, but if it has the effect of introducing people to someone whose music will change their lives, as more than one of the speakers on screen insist, Heaven Adores You will be worthwhile. Consultation of a Wikipedia article suggests that Heaven Adores You is a somewhat prettied up version of the final years of the artist.

    Yet the filmmakers have tracked down, by appearances, nearly everybody, family members, kids who played music with Eliott Smitt in Dallas, groups, recording people, producers, managers, girlfriends. There is also a lot of footage of Eliott Smith, of course. As a boy he was blond and athletic and cheerful-looking: it's hard to reconcile that with the dark, lined, hangdog face that peers out so often at later stages -- though the face lit up with a warm smile sometimes too, and one of his fellow musicians movingly speaks of dreaming of those times when Eliott looked over and smiled at him as they played. Ultimately this is a mystery and we don't get to the bottom of it. Smith seems to have been a lonely man.

    Smith showed musical talent very early. The film doesn't delve much into his departure from Dallas at 14. He went to live with his father and escape from his stepfather, who abused him. The film also doesn't discuss the Portland music scene in general terms except to say it was much smaller then: surely it payed a key role? There is a lot of testimony by fellow musicians of that time. Changing his name from Steve to Eliott, the youth, who played a lot of instruments, also graduated from his Portland high school a National Merit Scholar; then graduated from Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.; this is only briefly touched on. He was part of a busy punk rock scene in Portland after college, working as a baker then at the building trades for cash. The film threads us through the complicated list of musicians and bands and bars and recordings. Smith sang and played lead guitar with his band (the last one), Heatmiser, which he had formed while at Hampshire.

    Then, who knows why, he made a radical shift to playing solo, mostly acoustic guitar, using a lot of overdubbing. With Heatmiser, he had sung at the top of his lungs, but from then on sang in a wispy voice with a sound that reminded people of Simon and Garfunkel, and this was the style that stuck. He clearly retained the grunge style of dress, but took on a different musical style and in which he expressed his musical imagination and emotional honesty. His success caused problems with Heatmiser, and in an interview he cites his "losing" both his band and his girlfriend as the reasons for moving to New York, to Brooklyn, a gesture that left a void in the Portland music scene and devastated some of his friends and musical colleagues there.

    This film is intimate, meditative, celebratory, and emotional, but in some ways sketchy. For some basic facts to help one wade through a complicated bit of musical history one should read the Wikipedia article, which also cites a biography. Wikipedia stresses that Smith used alcohol and drugs as a youth and always suffered from depression; he mixed alcohol and antidepressants, not a recommended combination and fairly early showed signs of paranoia. Smith's collaboration with fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant led to use of various songs in Good Will Hunting, and Smith's 1998 Oscars performance and Conan O'Brian and Letterman appearances put him in the limelight. He only lived five more years, and those years, by reports in the film, were a time of visible decline, forgotten lyrics, unfinished gigs, a look of premature age. The film skips some of the grimmer details of Smith's life from 2000 on, the full-on heroin addiction, crack smoking, paranoia, suicide threats, and regular attempts to overdose -- all included in Wikipedia.

    Eliott Smith's legacy remains strong, with annual tributes; a big concert glimpsed in the closing credits celebrated the tenth anniversary of his death. During his life he was sometimes burdened by the emotionalism of his fans, who more than usual spoke of the huge meaning his songs had for them. He seems to be still finding new ones.

    Heaven Adores You, 104 mins., debuts 5 May 2014 at the San Francisco International Film Festival, for which it was screened for this review, and plays at the Canadian Music Week Festival 10 May.

    Trailer.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-19-2014 at 01:34 AM.

  2. #17
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    HAPPINESS (Thomas Balmès 2014)


    PEYANGKI AND HIS MOTHER IN HAPPINESS

    A Bhutan boy experiences the world, and TV wrestling

    Happiness is an act of ethnographic docu-fiction by French filmmaker Thomas Balmès (Babies). These settings are exotic and authentic, but scenes may be staged and directorial "control" somewhat more "overbearing" than usual, as Stephen Farber noted in Hollywood Reporter, writing from Sundance. Balnès and his cinematographer Nina Bernfeld follow the sunny-faced 8-year-old Peyangki, a boy in a Himalyan Bhutan village during a time when electricity finally comes and with it cable TV (and maybe computers). The film begins with a film of a 1999 speech by Bhutan's King Jigme Wangchuck announcing TV and Internet will be spread through the country. But it's over a decade later before electricity comes to Peyangki''s town of Laya. Two things mainly happen. Peyangki's mother takes him to a small and apparently failing local monastery. His father has died, killed by a bear. There are five other siblings. She needs Peyangki out of the way to take care of the yaks and save on expenses. The boy is cooperative but ambivalent about this transfer.

    It's a bit hard to see how Peyangki is "studying" at the monastery, as is implied in conversation. He seems only to repeat a few phrases over and over. It's hard to guess the status of the adult monk and the monastery. Somehow, the boy seems able to leave and come back at will, luckily for him.

    Later, in what becomes the film's central and most interesting sequence, Peyankgi's uncle Kinley takes him (playing hooky from monkhood) on a cross country hike to the capital of Thimphu, selling a yak along the way to buy a second TV and bring it back -- to have for when there is TV service, presumably. The first fell off his horse and broke. In Thimphu boy and man enjoy the wonders of the city. Just watching traffic at an intersection fascinates them. Peyangki looks up his sister, who turns out to be working not in the post office but as a club dancer, a secret the boy keeps. In the final scene, the family is gathered around in the dark, the electrical and cable lines completed, watching an American TV wrestling show, wide-eyed and doubtless uncomprehending. "Happiness"? Hardly. But the boy's naive, wide-eyed delight at the wonders of the city on that trip with his uncle is of a purity rarely seen. Without TV or books, everything, even a store mannequin and fish tanks and a bed with sheets, is a new adventure, and Peyangki is up for it.

    Balnès uses a fly-on-the wall approach, without inter-titles or commentary. Some scenes are observed from a fair distance and one enjoys the delicate touch, as on the trip to the capital or when the boy and cohorts do somersaults on distant rooftops, or when Peyangki and another boy monk, after their leader heads off to join another monastery, doubtless a more active one, run around enjoying their sudden freedom, waving their robes over their heads like red sails. It works up close too, when an action is happening that can't be faked, like the older boy cutting Peyangki's hair. Outdoors, there are opportunities to savor the dramatic surrounding mountain landscape. The film is best at these moments, not so good when there are conversations, which sometimes feel staged or self-conscious. There's authenticity and authenticity. Still the filmmakers are capturing life on the run, even if sometimes action is so bland that it drags, despite the short run-time.

    Happiness, 77 mins., after a Netherlands theatrical opening, debuted at Sundance in early 2014, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Cinematography award and was nominated for the World Cinema Documentary award. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival where it showed three times, 27 Apr. and 30 Apr at Sundance Kabuki, and 2 May at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-28-2014 at 11:52 PM.

  3. #18
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    FREEDOM SUMMER (Stanley Nelson 2014)

    STANLEY NELSON: FREEDOM SUMMER (2014)



    Documentary of key fight against southern racism is still relevant 50 years later

    The veteran African-American documentarian Stanley Nelson here reviews Mississippi, summer of 1964, a crucial moment in the civil rights movement. Mississippi had more blacks and fewer by far allowed to vote than any other southern state, so it was seen by rights activists as a tipping point. An invasion of upwards of a thousand black and white college students came, more white than black, organized by the black Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee seeking to register blacks to vote. But Mississippi was a state so violent and so racist it didn't need the Ku Klux Klan ("bad publicity"). The segregationist Citizens' Councils did the job, running city governments and police departments. Blacks were humiliated and intimidated constantly. Voting "literary tests" arbitrarily imposed by racist poll bosses, prevailed. SNCC organizers knew ths state was a tinderbox, but the young student idealists came in unaware -- though three whites disappeared right away and later were found dead. Nonetheless the segregationist monolith was dealt a significant blow by the ten-week northern invasion, while those who came for this time were changed forever and the local black people they worked with were given a big injection of hope and confidence, this film shows.

    Nelson's review, a mix of current interviews with participants, archival footage, and well used and often remarkable still photographs, to be aired on PBS in June 2014, is a powerful reminder of these important events. And it's more than that. It's particularly relevant given the evens of recent years, since there is a new widespread effort once again, at this 50th anniversary, to disenfranchise black, poor, and minority voters in the South, not to mention elsewhere in the US.

    The eye-opener is to see the extent and the variety, not to mention the cruelty of the white intimidation methods used to keep blacks from voting in Mississippi. SNCC had seen that nationwide attention was needed to expose this, and bringing in the youths and especially the white students was the way. When they came, police forces were hugely beefed up; the Klan resurged dramatically in s statewide Kristallnacht of cross-burnings. The supremacists knew the SNCC-organized invasion was coming and were ready for it. Right away James Chaney (a black CORE activist from Mississippi), CORE organizer Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman were arrested by a cop who was a Klan member, then released and chased and killed by the Klan. From this horrific act, it was clear from the start of Freedom Summer that the predominance of whites in the student volunteer group was not going to make anybody safer. Four rights workers were killed, at least three blacks murdered, 80 workers beaten, over a thousand arrested, 37 churches bombed or burned, 30 black businesses or houses destroyed. The white volunteers had to stay with black families; no place else was safe. The experience was a powerful one on both sides. Would a powerful campaign for racial justice like this be any safer now than it was then?

    SNCC's "Freedom Summer" plan, begun early in that year, was a three-pronged program: voter registration; Freedom schools to teach black kids African-American history and pride; organizing of the Freedom Democratic Party. The schools met with enthusiasm, and planted a great seed of hope. Adults as well as children showed up at the schools, run in black churches (doubtless why so many churches were burned by white racists). Particularly moving here is the film's coverage of the finding of the murdered men's bodies, the memorial services, and the mass meetings in black churches attended by blacks and whites that continually took place. Subtly, using a blend of still photos, gospel music, and voiceover, Nelson weaves a dramatic climax as moving as any fiction. Surprise fact: Lyndon Johnson opposed the seating of the rival integrated Freedom Democratic Party delegation to replace the all-white one at the Atlantic City Democratic National Convention, and almost had a nervous breakdown, convinced that such a disruption would upset his nomination in favor of Robert Kennedy's. He brought allhis formidable manipulative powers to bear to prevent this unseating of the all-white Mississippi delegation, and the proud black delegates refused a brutal compromise of getting just two members and instead all went home. Most colorful figure: the fiery Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi black sharecropper who'd been kicked off her land for registering to vote and had become SNCC's guiding spirit in Mississippi. LBJ was so afraid of her speech at the convention, he gave a impromptu concocted press conference to push it off TV. Other figures in the film include the Rev. Martin Luther King; the late Pete Seeger, in one of his last interviews; and the strong, unflinching Rita, widow of slain rights worker Michael Schwerner.

    Nelson's film feels unmistakably like a labor of love. It may be conventional, but it's uplifting, hopeful, and has a beautiful shape. The filmmaker us known for Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999) and Freedom Riders (2010). He has won several Emmys and been nominated for and won numerous other awards for his films as well as a MacArthur "genius" grant.

    Freedom Summer , 114 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2014, and was given brief but glowing reviews there in Variety (by Rob Nelson) and Hollywood Reporter (by Duane Byrge). It was included in DOXA, Vancouver's documentary film festival (May 2-11), among others. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. It airs on the PBS American Experience series June 24, 2014.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-28-2014 at 11:41 PM.

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