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Thread: San Francisco International Film Festival 2015

  1. #1
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    San Francisco International Film Festival 2015

    San Francisco International Film Festival 2015

    - SFIFF 2015 FULL PROGRAM (PDF file)
    - Filmleaf's General Forum SFIFF 2015 links and comments thread

    Links to reviews:

    Black Coal, Thin Ice 白日焰火/Bai ri yan huo (Diao Yinan 2014)
    A Borrowed Identity/Dancing Arabs (Eran Kiiplis 2014)
    Court (Chaitanya Tamhane 2014)
    El Cordero (Juan Francisco Olea 2014)
    Dearest (Peter Ho-sun Chan 2014)
    Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve 2014)
    Entertainment (Rick Alverson 2015)
    Fidelio, Alice's Odyssey/Fidelio, l'odysée d'Alice (Lucie Borleteau 2014)
    German Youth, A (Jean-Gabriel Périot 2015)
    Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz 2014)
    Hill of Freedom 자유의 언덕/Jayuui Eondeok (Hong Sang-soo 2014)
    Iris (Albert Maysles 2014)--Spotlight on Documentary
    Jauja (Lisandro Alonso 2014)
    The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid 2014)
    Screening with: Why? (Nadav Lapid 2015, 5 mins.)

    Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley 214)
    Murder in Pacot/Meurtre à Pacot (Raoul Peck 2014)
    Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello 2014)
    Sand Dollars/Dólares de arena (Ísrael Cárdenas, Laura Amelia Guzmán 2014)
    Sunday Ball/Campo de jogo (Eryk Rocha 2014)
    Sworn Virgin (Laura Bispuri 2015)
    The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark 2014)
    Time Out of Mind (Owen Moverman 2014)
    The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky (2014)
    Two Shots Fired/Dos disparos (Martin Rejtman 2014)
    Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok 2015)
    Vincent (Thomas Salvador 2014)
    Wonders, The/Le meraviglie (Alice Rohrwacher 2014)

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-07-2015 at 10:06 AM.

  2. #2
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    SFIFF 2015 Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing films


    The opening, closing, and centerpiece films for the fall festival:

    OPENING NIGHT: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney) (1)
    CENTERPIECE: The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt) (2)
    CLOSING NIGHT: Experimenter (Michael Almereyda) (3)

    (See a discussion of these three highlighted films of the festival by Michael Hawley on The Evening Class.)

    The San Francisco International Film Festival 2015 full program was announced March 31, 2015 at the opening press conference at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Members only tickets on sale from noon 31 March; on sale to the public starting noon 3 April. There will be tributes during the festival to Guillermo del Toro and Richard Gere, and events by Miranda July and the Kronos Quartet.

  3. #3
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    Zhang Hanyu in The Taking of Tiger Mountain

    Civil war and wild CGI in the frozen Chinese north

    The Hong Kong master of the Chinese blockbuster presents a middling example of his art in this remake of a Cultural Revolution patriotic tale starring Tony Leung Ka Fai. It's not his best but it has some new wrinkles, particularly in the period and the locations. Conspicuously designed with in-your-face effects for its big set pieces in 3D for the Chinese market, it has been released in 2D in the US. The gritty post-WWII Chinese civil war action adventure extravaganza is framed by the brief bookend of a young Chinese student in New York -- he's at a Chinatown karaoke club with pals as the movie opens -- who goes home for Christmas vacation inspired by a '70's movie adaptation he's glimpsed on TV of the Cultural revolution patriotic opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The bulk of the film, with its period military costumes and shivering renegades, is this young man's flashback imaginings based on the film he's seen. Its basic premise of fighters helping villagers could be seen as a nod to the plot of Seven Samurai.

    So the main action starts out like this, as summarized by Derek Elley, the Asian film reviewer who knows the history inside and out: "Northeast China, Heilongjiang province, Jan 1946. Following the resumption of the Chinese civil war after the surrender of the Japanese, bandit groups have been rampaging throughout the area, partly in collusion with KMT forces who use them to halt the PLA. In snow-covered forests near the Mudan (Peony) River, a starving PLA troop commanded by Captain Shao Jianbo, codename '203' (Lin Gengxin), is battling to wipe out the bandits. It takes on a group of renegades, loyal to local warlord Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai), from which two manage to escape alive." See the rest of Elley's detailed summary on Film Business Asia. Besides retailing the plot meticulously, Elley understands the context of renewed civil war in China after the defeat of Japan better than I do.

    There are a lot of plot elements, but what we need to grasp is that bandits are rampaging in the post-war situation here in the frozen north, and the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese nationalist party troops, are using these scruffy micreants to block the PLA, the communist People's Liberation Army. We begin with scenes in the bosom of a starving unit of the PLA commanded by (handsome) Captain Shao Jianbo, secret code name "203." These PLA troops will take on bandits headed by local warlord Lord Hawk. Early on, at a desolate train station, the PLA group is joined by Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu), an experienced (and handsome and bearded) scout from the PLA's political division, and a (sweet and pretty) field nurse, Bai Ru (Tong Liya). Loudly in evidence also is Jiang Shuanzi (Su Yiming), a wild (later cute and adorable) boy with unruly, Struwwelpeter hair, a survivor of recent bandit attacks on his village. There is much ado about a certain Advance Map giving locations of thousands of fighters stationed all around in the north, which the KMT want to use to get Lord Hawk's cooperation.

    Lord Hawk is an extravagant character with a beaky prosthetic nose who first prances onto the scene bearing aloft his live emblematic bird of prey. Leung Ka Fai, who plays this dramatic villain, also played Detective Dee in Tsui's more elaborate and energetic [URLf=""]Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame[/URL], which I saw in Paris in 2011. That one refers to remote Chinese history, its unique female ruler. Perhaps it can better get away with its utterly fantastic action because it all takes place so very long ago. The action in Tiger Mountain seems more preposterous because Hark's wild imagination is applied to the relatively contemporary 1940's. In his AV Club review Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out how cartoonish the baddies are in this movie, how far-out its 3D-emphatic set pieces are. He calls Tiger's CGI "gelatinous" and notes the special effects are "compellingly imaginative without being remotely convincing." Interestingly. Elley thinks the opposite: that the modern setting gives this movie a "more grounded feel" than other Tsui costume dramas, and authentic local flavor. In fact the wintry, mountainous locations are striking, and local cast members are employed (plus a couple of South Koreans doing key production work). Even Elley admits some things are far-fetched, such as an over-the-top battle between Yang and a supersized animatronic Siberian tiger (way less good than Ang Lee's Life of Pi), a spectacular and gravity-defying 3D-designed covert raid on skis on Lord Hawk's mountain lair, and a no-holds-barred finale, not to mention an "alternative finale" (Tsui's original version rejected by the Chinese censors) slipped in halfway through the lengthy end titles. Anyway, whereas with Phantom Flame the look was fiery and sparkling, here winter dominates, troops starve and shiver, bullets fly and blood spurts, darkness hovers, and men seem garbed in heavy burlap.

    Tsui is reworking corny twentieth-century political pseudo-folklore just for the fun of the extravagant set pieces, and the emotion and sentimentality are pasted on. Most of the cast are mainland except the grotesuely made up Tony Leong Ka Fai. Yang is the hero, going under cover to gain access to the Tiger Mountain lair where he outwits enemy Lord Hawk. Sometimes a mini-narrative element is suddenly dropped; it's hard to tell how we get from one scene to the next. The fun isn't in the plot but in the little details like picking up scraps of food off the ground, the Mad Max-ish wigs, shaved heads, fur eye patches, etc., the clouds of steam from mouths and other signs of extreme cold, the amusingly obvious humanizing efforts like the nurse and little boy. Unfortunately plot is important, and we can't survive on mise-en-scène and colorful characters alone, no matter how good. Or can one? Here, from minute to minute, one almost can. Tsui Hark puts on quite a show. But the whole is less than the parts.

    The Taking of Tiger Mountain, 141 mins., debuted in China 23 Dec. 2014, opened in NYC 2 Jan. 2015; it has been in the Hong Kong film festival and was screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it plays 26 and 30 April. See SFIFF 2015 schedule.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-11-2015 at 11:35 PM.

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    VINCENT (Thomas Salvador 2014)


    Quiet superhero

    Vincent is the kind of original little film they can make in France because there is funding. Thomas Salvador, who was well established with the French audience for his shorts, goes entirely his own way in this low-keyed super-powers tale; in fact in this first feature he both directs and plays the eponymous main character. Vincent is in most ways an ordinary man , almost below ordinary, slightly inept and virtually non-verbal. He's no more adept at ping pong than he is speedy at his little construction site jobs. But when he enters the water, or is doused with it, he has ten times the strength of an ordinary man. In the water he can swim as fast as a speedboat, leap up into the air like a dolphin, or shoot straight up out of a pool onto the land. These are the few moments when special effects are used, and there is no music save for a lighthearted song at the end that suggests that while there is real magic here, we need not take it too seriously.

    Magic is most magical when it comes swathed in ordinariness. I've always said that the supernatural seems potentially more real in low budget films. That fancy CGI just reminds us we're at the cineplex. When, on the other hand, the impossible is faked in a quiet, low keyed and low budget and crabwise manner, that's when it grabs you and makes you think: what would it be like if this really happened?

    If this is a superhero in the making, he's in the earliest stages. He doesn't really know what to do with his powers, other than enjoy the special feeling it gives him to be wet and magically powerful. He longs for it so much on one memorable occasion he rushes to the water on a bike and plunges into it, bike and all, without removing his shoes.

    Thomas Salvador has a slightly seedy look; not that of a conventional movie star. But he's also lean and lithe and young looking. He's hard to categorize. He speaks so little, Buster Keaton has been mentioned. This wordlessness also points to the strange power he has. What's the use of talking? He can't explain himself, and he dare not try. He seems to have become aware of it only recently himself.

    It's summertime in the south of France, Vincent's current job is near a lake, and swimming is something everybody's doing. But he goes for his swims privately; among other bathers he seems afraid of slipping into behavior that will seem freakish or scary. His reserve is a little strange. He doesn't exactly lack confidence, but he's very shy, and the social skills aren't there. His whole manner is that of a mime.

    Vincent's new girlfriend finds him, rather than he her. As Lucie, the up-and-comer Vimala Pons has a wildness and vivacity that's a good match for Vincent's superpowers. Watch her long naked caress in bed, when she slides the length of Vincent's body and slips toward the floor. After a bit he reveals his talents to her; it's a measure both of her spirit and her caring for him that she takes it quietly in stride. Driss (Youssef Haji), Vincent's pal and coworker, doesn't know about his aquatic transformations. Not, that is, till mistreatment of Driss by a coworker leads Vincent to come to his defense in a way involving a cement mixer. (He douses himself with a big bucket of water to get the strength for this.)

    What follows is an precipitous chase where, in Keystone Cops style, Vincent stays just a hundred meters ahead of men of the Gendarmes in frantic pursuit in boats and on foot. Where is he going? far across the water? Wherever it is, Alexis Kavyrchine's nice photography makes the forest scenery sing. But just as Salvador has begun his film with no origin story, he lets his exciting finale fizzle away. Luckily, the action in the middle is fresh and oddly real.

    Vincent/Vincent n'a pas d'écailles ("Vincent doesn't have scales"), 78 mins., debuted at San Sebastian September 2014 and has played at nine other mostly European festivals. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 2015, May 1, 4, and 7; see schedule. It opened theatrically in France 18 February 2015 and fared extremely will with the critics: AlloCiné press rating 3.9, with top marks from the hippest (and often non-unanimous) Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Inrockuptibles, a good sign that this is original stuff. The French like a director who flies by the seat of his pants, as here. They call it pure cinema.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-11-2015 at 11:34 PM.

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    A BORROWED IDENTITY (Eran Kiplis 2014)



    PREVIEW. Full review will come with US release.

    Growing up on both sides of the fence in Israel

    Conventional in style, obvious in its contrasts, overly-fanciful in its latter part, Erin Riklis' recent film Dancing Arabs, aka A Borrowed Identity, nonetheless (as Jay Weissberg says in Variety) is one of his more complex efforts, dealing as it does with the tricky identity problems involved in the coming of age of a bright Israeli Palestinian Arab who winds up leaving his little Israeli Arab village to attend an elite Hebrew boarding school in Jerusalem with an attractive Jewish girlfriend and a world of confusion. Things are helped considerably by the lead performance of Tewfeek Barhom, with a sensitive face and a personal background that, in his words, was "tailor-made" for this role, which replays conflicts he himself has experienced as a linguistically assimilated Israeli Arab. He even has the same last name as the protagonist he plays, Eyad Barhom. Tawfeek is both charismatic and subtle in the role, despite a script that, while interesting (and dealing with incredibly fraught subject matter) relies a little too much on stereotypes and wish-fulfillment.

    A Borrowed Identity, original title Dancing Arabs, 104 mins., in Arabic and Hebrew,debuted at Jerusalem (though fears of rockets caused a opening night cancellation); and at, Locarno internationally, Telluride in the US in July and August 2014. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 26 z(Kabuki), 28 (Kabuki) and 30 (PFA), 2015. See schedule. It opened in France with the title Mon fils ("My Son"), with good reviews (AlloCiné press rating of 3.5). A NYC theatrical release 26 June 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-04-2015 at 10:48 PM.

  6. #6
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    BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (Diao Yinan 2014)



    Dodgy, dingily gorgeous Chinese neo-noir delights the eye and numbs the mind

    If you love the genre and appreciate original filmmaking it'll be hard not to be seduced by Diao's stylish, moody neo-noir -- Black Coal, Thin Ice in the English title; the equivalent of Daylight Fireworks in the Chinese one. It's nice that the Berlinale rewarded it with the Golden Bear: noir doesn't always get a seat in first class. But this isn't going to mean the film will have an audience beyond festivals and genre fans, at least outside China. Bear in mind that it's a Chinese neo-noir, which specifically means the set designer and cinematographer have collaborated using locations evoking China circa 1999 and 2004, hence at earlier stages of the country's production explosion, to provide a series of deliciously shabby-chic, about-to-be-remodeled-or-demolished locations, so gorgeous one Letterbox reviewer had to keep rewinding to admire them. There are also references to rampant Chinese government corruption and indifference to the value of human life. But while there is interesting complexity in the main characters as well as subtle beauty in the visuals, the action is somewhat stagnant and muddled.

    With a sense of tactile sensuality, Diao delivers a hot and sweaty summertime green-and-black opening section to make us more keenly aware, as if plunged into an ice-water bath, of the much longer, snowy, wintry, blue-gray last part, which makes great use of ice and snow and chilly winds that almost sweep people away. Locations and visuals set throughout in Manchuria (Northeastern China) indeed are a triumph of atmosphere and aesthetic gratification in Diao's movie.

    Note that the Letterbox online reviewer wasn't going back over scenes to try to figure out the plot, because one never really can. Yet at the same time one kind of knows what's going on. The reject police detective, Zhang (Liao Fan), fired or resigned after a terribly botched arrest five years earlier, is half in love with what you don't have to be a genius to know is the chief suspect in this ongoing serial killer case, laundry employee Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). A familiar trope: see Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), or a couple of years ago Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling in I, Anna, to name only two. Noir detectives just tend to fall for suspicious people (ladies), much as friend Joseph Cotton didn't want to suspect his old pal Orson Welles of unspeakable wartime evil in The Third Man. A tense late scene in Black Coal set high up in on a ferris wheel seems to allude to the Carol Reed Classic, and Diao refers to Jules et Jim too. He's a little drunk on his forebears.

    The action plunges quickly into contemporary gruesomeness when odd, long packages start to appear in shipments of coal all over the country. They turn out to contain body parts -- there's a severed hand and wrist showing atop one freight load -- evidently dropped onto open train cars that were sent from a central location. Zhang is involved in an arrest of two armed punks in a seedy hair salon reminiscent of early Wong Kar Wai. Incredibly, in a flash two cops are killed, and one punk gets away. Next thing you know it's five years later and Zhang is slumped over, very drunk, by his motorcycle in an underpass. He wakes up just enough to see his motorcycle swapped for a cheap Chinese Mobylette. He's a security guard lately, and so often drunk his boss is ready to fire him. Somehow he's around when another serial killing with the same elongated body part packages turns up. Zhang starts following Wu, widow of the 1999 coal plant victim. He's so clumsy she spots him and tells him to stop, and they become a sort of couple.

    As Zhang, Lio Fan is a mixture of loser and hero like many noir protagonists. He gets dumped by his wife at the beginning after an oddball, sexy, upside down lovemaking scene, in those hot and steamy 1999 days when he was leaner and cleaner and younger-looking. In his 2004 state of decline, he sports a droopy, semi-comical, semi-handsome Fu Manchu mustache. Older looking, perhaps chubbier, he is perpetually wearing a heavy leather jacket and a big scarf. He has them on even in a late scene when he does a wild interpretive dance, a vague allusion to Denis' Beau Travail, in one of the best of many pleasingly trashy locations, a big, splendidly decayed dance hall.

    As Wu Zhizhen, the object of Zhang's attractions-suspicions, Gwei Lun Mei is similarly ambiguous, more drab and dull-eyed than a femme fatale ought to be at first, but more handsome-looking and seductively mysterious as time goes on. She definitely qualifies as a vagina dentata type, a la Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl's Last Seduction, and one feels Zhang's borderline self-defeating fascination.

    Noir plots can be pretty simple, like those of Dahl's debut trifecta of rigorously genre zingers Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction. Or they can be famously incomprehensible, like The Big Sleep's, which the filmmakers themselves said they were baffled by. In very rare and wonderful cases, as in perhaps the greatest neo-noir of all, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, they can have plots that are both complex and layered, and yet ultimately make perfect sense. That took a lot of thought and revision and a brilliant screenwriter like Robert Towne to carry off. Some French noirs also are puzzlers, like Melville's Le Doulos. Which brings us to the point that in noir, mood and style and atmosphere are so important they can make up for a plot's inadequacies, almost. Diao does some wonderful things with transitions and surprises. The flashy, yet realistic, finale to which the Chinese title refers comes out of left field, but it's a surprise that's drenched in possible irony rich in political and social implications, which may help explain how this is compared with the abrupt shifts of Jia's A Touch of Sin.

    The trouble with Diao's movie is that it goes by fits and starts, and gets pretty sluggish at times, Zhang's ambivalence coming across just as inertia. The ending of the film is a dazzler, but can't hide the fact that Diao has just dropped and moved on from the plot rather than resolved it. But that is not to say this is a slog like something by Béla Tarr or Nuri Bilge Ceylon. It just doesn't zip along, or deliver a fully satisfying narrative.

    Black Coal, Thin Ice/白日焰火 ("Daylight Fireworks"), Diao Yinan's third feature, 106 mins., in Mandarin, debuted 17 Feb. 2014 at Berlin, winning the top prize. Several dozen other international festivals and several dozen country theatrical releases, including France 11 Jun. 2014. French reviews were excellent: AlloCiné press rating 4.0 ("Ça, c'est du cinéma" - Le Nouvel Observateur). Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival, 23 Apr.-7 May, showing in Berkeley 25 April (Pacific Film Archive), and twice in San Francisco, 27 April (Landmark Clay), and 29 April (Sundance Kabuki). See SFIFF schedule.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-11-2015 at 11:37 PM.

  7. #7
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    DEAREST (Peter Ho-sun Chan 2014)


    PREVIEW. Full review will come with US release.

    A child lost and found in China

    Peter Chan's Dearest, an intermittently interesting but poorly organized film about lost and abducted children, follows Tian (Huang Bo) and Lu (Hao Lei), a divorced couple whose three-year-old son Pengpeng has wandered off and been stolen after Lu, who's remarried, has left him off at Tian's little Internet cafe. They join a lost-child support group that goes out tracking down child abductors and, alone among the group's numerous members, they actually do find their child. Then, mid-way, the story turns from button-pushing child-abduction tear jerker to questioning essay. The adoptive mother appears, who has raised the child innocently, not knowing he was abducted. Since she has had the boy as long as Tian and Lu, isn't it cruel to pluck the boy from her? Who is the real parent, the birth parent, or the adopted one that the child has come to love? This is an interesting dilemma. But the film shifts focus often, and has structural problems.

    Dearest, 128 mins., debuted at Venice 2014, also showing at Toronto; over a dozen other international festivals, and screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Apr.-May 2015. Showing April 26 (Clay), April 30 (Kabuki), see SFIFF schedule.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-12-2015 at 12:24 AM.

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    SAND DOLLARS ( Laura Amelia Guzmán, Israel Cardénas 2014)



    Sexual tourism revisited

    This little film, into which Geraldine Chaplin put her enthusiasm and her passion and sponsorship, is a straightforward treatment of the theme of sexual tourism. Though set in the Dominican Republic today instead of Haiti in the Seventies, it brings to mind Laurent Cantet's 2006 Heading South/Vers le sud (R-V 2006). Cantet treats the subject on a wider social scale: a handful of local amateur sex workers and bourgeois ladies from the North, psychological and political implications, dangers and setbacks. Sand Dollars , based on a novel in French by the prolific Jean-Noël Pancrazi , is like a simpler, more basic handbook on the theme, treating only one couple and the sex worker's boyfriend, the rich lady's local well-off acquaintances and her estranged son vaguely in the distance, no look at socioeconomics or history. Instead the widescreen cinematography, also simple, is tasteful and beautiful (if a bit heavy on the contre jour shots at first). And there's a sense of love on both sides, all three sides, actually. The lady loves the girl, or cares for her a lot anyway; the girl cares for the lady, and the boy loves the girl. This is good to know. But it doesn't change anything and nicely done as Sand Dollars is, as right and fearless as Geraldine Chaplin is in this role, it's hard to see that the film adds profoundly to our knowledge or emotional experience.

    What's different here is the frequent reference to Noeli (Yanet Mojica) and Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio) as a couple; Noeli trades her favors informally to foreigners on the beach, like the departing Frenchman (Bernard Bizel) who gives her a chain that she promptly has Yemeni sell. Noeli and Yemeni are a pair, alright. Slim and youthful looking, they're so well-matched they look like milk chocolate Dominican Ken and Barbie dolls. But their love isn't particularly passionate; in fact this film goes easy on the sex, showing Noeli and and the much older Anne (Chaplin) in each others' arms and stopping there. It's presumed that Anne adores Noeli, since she keeps coming back, spends long periods in the country, and has been in this "relationship" for three years. Brief conversations between Anne and gay friend Thomas [Hoyt Rogers] and similarly inclined new young friend Goya (Maria Gabriella Bonetti) help fill us in on plans and context.

    Yes, Anne "loves" Noeli, but does the length of time mean much beside the fact that Anne has nothing she wants to do back in Europe? There may be love here but Noeli, Anne, and Yemeni (who Noeli pretends, convincingly, is her "brother"), don't seem much bothered by jealousy. The trouble is that there are no consequences here, and in such matters there are always consequences, or at least dedicated efforts to avoid them. The real story would happen when somebody does something, not just Noeli disappearing for a while or Anne threatening to leave, but when Anne takes Noeli back to France, which is left up in the air. Sand Dollars is a pretty bauble, referring to matters treated more seriously elsewhere.

    Sand Dollars/Dólares de arena, 80 mins., in Spanish, English, and French, debuted at Toronto; other festivals, especially in the US and Latin America. The filmmakers are a couple, Laura Amelia Guzmán Dominican, Israel Cárdenas Mexican Screened for this review as part of the April 23- May 7, 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival, showings April 27 (Clay), April 29 (Sundance). See SFIFF schedule.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-12-2015 at 05:32 PM.

  9. #9
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    MURDER IN PACOT (Raoul Peck 2014)



    Post-earthquake ravages and rage

    Raoul Peck's Murder in Pacot is a two-couple chamber drama whose "chamber" is literally about to crumble -- a two-story white modern house in a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince in the week following the terrible Haitian earthquake of 2010. It's the Haitian-born filmmaker's first narrative feature since Lumumba in 2000 and serves as a companion piece for his earthquake documentary Fatal Assistance (a key figure here is a futile, if not fatal, young white French "aid" person). The setup forces the issues. It also drains out wider context, since the camera rarely goes beyond the confines of the house.

    Yet Peck has still made a strong, memorable film with some of the sharp fusions of class, sex and colonialism Claire Denis has been known for. The steely elegant Alex Descas who plays the unnamed owner of this ruined place is a Claire Denis regular, though he also played Mobutu in Lumumba. You come away with a feeling of anger and frustration, registered in Descas' rageful face, and also in the imperious glare of Nigerian singer Joy O. Ogunmakin, who plays his wife. This is like a play. Yet it's in a very real, off-stage place. And you don't care. Peck is a fierce, powerful director and he has assembled some terrific actors.

    The privileged man and woman (known simply -- symbolically -- as "L'homme" and "La femme") awaken to a horrible reality. Probably their young adopted sun has died in the quake and they have nothing materially, either. An Italian expert comes around to tell them the house is in marginal condition, and, if not restored rapidly, will soon be razed. It appears only a second floor "apartment" is habitable, so the man rents the apartment to Alex (Thibault Vinçon), a high-level white French relief worker, to raise money for repairs, and they move to a servant's shelter outside. To their shock Alex brings in a village-born Haitian girlfriend, Andremise (excellent newcomer Lovely Kermonde Fifi). The sassy, ambitious Andremise soon announces she's changed her name to Jennifer. She naively thinks Alex will take her back fo France; but she may be bold enough to carry it off. In any case she is the life force of the scene.

    I was intrigued by the arrival on screen of Vinçon, who played the pivotal, attractive-repellant figure in Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends, a wickedly clever tale of a seductive intellectual fraud, a kind of Tom Ripley of the Sorbonne. Alex seems a fool, but he could be a fraud too -- and one with access to money and aid packages. There is an air of danger about him simply because these things give him enormous power, and he knows nothing. And he can leave.

    Jennifer may be a fraud too. Certainly the handsome Haitian "brother" who visits her at every opportunity is not a relation. He wants her to run away with him, perhaps taking anything of Alex's of value they can get their hands on. Jennifer also gives a big party on the day -- the action is divided into eight days -- when Alex is out in the country "helping." This event to which with difficulty she lures the haughty lady of the house is symbolic of the earthquake's temporary, but quite unreal, leveling of social distinctions. When Jennifer's "brother" invites her to dance the lady tells him "You have not the right." Jennifer is from a village, up by the bootstraps. The lady was educated abroad, like the gentleman, and they met there.

    The man tries to dismiss the loss of their boy because he was not their blood offspring. His wife doesn't agree. This rift and this loss will freeze away their union to something merely cold and provisional. By the end, everyone will want to run off with Jennifer. But that is not what will happen. Meanwhile, as part of the heaviest symbolism, there is an unpleasant smell that everyone says is pervasive everywhere. But to the lady's temporary relief, their house servant, Joseph (Albert Moléon) returns. His firs question is "And the little one?" and he goes about searching for the body of the boy. In doing this he burrows under the house, which may cause it to collapse and him to be buried.

    When the lady of the house tries to explore, she is quickly frightened back by an unfriendly crowd of uniformed workers assigned to "clean," who are simply shifting dust around on the street.

    Yes, as I said, the symbolism is heavy-handed. But things unfold powerfully in the moment, with a palpable sense of danger and uncertainty. Outside helpers are already distrusted. The power forces may shift at any moment. On the other hand, ingenuity, shrewdness and ambition must still vie with class, which creeps back into the picture. It turns out Alex's origins are pretty humble, despite his present position.

    Peck and his excellent writer Pascal Bonitzer (who also worked on Lumumba) and Haitian novelist Lyonel Trouillot cite Pasolini's Teorema as a source. Andremise-Jennifer is now the life-changing, sexually disruptive Visitor. Her powers parallel, or augment, the disruptive effect of the natural disaster which, in turn, is only one more particularly vivid outward sign of the long-lasting helplessness and exploitation of the country, where the dictatorship stole the homeowner's youth. How do you recover from a terrible disaster when you were already the poorest country in the hemisphere? (Bill Clinton arrivees: Alex puts on a coat and tie to meet him.) To do Peck and his excellent co-writers credit, we figure out a lot of what it all means later. When the movie is unreeling over its somewhat excessive length we're absorbed in the jaw-dropping theatricality and eventually the danger and threat of violence.

    Murder in Pacot/Meurtre à Pacot, 130 mins., in French, with some Creole, debuted at Toronto 5 Sept. 2014, and since has shown at Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva and Istanbul. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it shows 26 April and 5 May (Sundance Kabuki) and 2 May (Pacific Film Archive, Berkelley); see schedule.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-13-2015 at 08:42 PM.

  10. #10
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    A GERMAN YOUTH (Jean-Gabriel Périot 2015)


    A cool look back at the RAF radicalization

    Six years ago I reviewed a long flashy dramatic film by Uli Edel called The Baader Meinhjof Complex. This is something very different, Jean-Gabrial Périot, who was previously known for his well-edited shorts, being a skillful documentarian of the cool-assemblage-of-found-footage school. Périot conveys the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF)-Baader-Meinhof almost entirely with period news footage, with a few other kinds of clips judiciously thrown in. Amusingly some of the founders of these Seventies German activist, later "terrorist" groups were film students, so we get their own didactic black and white footage, and we can feel them having fun with it. Some of it's memorable, if tasteless, like the shots of a naked young man sitting on the john who wipes himself with a piece of a Che Guevara poster. These youthful cineastes included the provocateur Holger Meins.

    The Périot approach suits the present taste for neutral fly-on-the-wall (or in this case fly-in-the-film-library) documentaries, the non-fiction equivalent of the muddling-along Romanian school of film narrative whose cornerstone is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. He gives us the period in an acid bath, taking no stand. Radicalism came on gradually. Ulrike Meinhof could sit around tables in TV studios with old men in suits and get their polite attention. Quite a contrast to the shrill, even hysterical, tone adopted by German government leaders addressing the public after the provocations had begun.

    The way the young German idealists were slowly pushed to violence as seen in Périot's carefully edited version reminded me of what River Phoenix tells his younger brother in Running on Empty about why their parents blew up a weapons research lab: "Because they didn't stop when we asked them politely." Meinhof and the others asked politely. The just weren't heeded. And then they got beaten with big sticks when they demonstrated against the Shah -- and Axel Springer's own footage showed how the police (whom she was one of the first to call "pigs"), moved in not to protect the demonstrators but to support the Shah's goons. That wasn't nice. It made peaceful demonstrators look like a bunch of patsies.

    We can see how postwar Germany was open to democracy and at the same time not quite prepared for it. They didn't like Hitler or the Gestapo (any more, or weren't supposed to), but maybe extremism was all they knew. When Eli Edel's swashbuckling violent re-creations -- like Assayas' juicy, engrossing Carlos seem a little too involving, we want something cooler, more analytical. It's good to let us draw our own conclusions. It's true as Jay Weissberg says in his Variety review of Périot's film, that we can see parallels with today. And indeed why in the furor over fear of ISIS attacks in Europe is there so little mention of the Lufthansa 181 incident, the IRA, and the Red Brigades in Italy, all in the Seventies? Something in between Uli Edel's and Assayas' too-engrossing fantasy identifications and Périot's flat sequences of visual documents is in order, holding the conclusions or the side-taking but providing more overt analysis and drawing of analogies. He might have at least pointed to the strange case of the RAF's lawyer, Horst Mahler. Something incongruously nerdy, in such a hip group, made me look him up, and I discovered that he has now become a member of the extreme right, shifting from socialist to Maoist to of late, a Holocaust denier jailed for giving the Nazi salute. He's his own strange bedfellow.

    A German Youth/Une jeunesse allemande, 92 mins., which begins with some French narration but is mostly in German, debuted as a documentary sidebar at Berlin 6 February 2015. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. See schedule.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-13-2015 at 08:43 PM.

  11. #11
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    SUNDAY BALL (Eryk Rocha 2014)


    A sensory filming of Rio soccer

    Eryk Rocha's Sunday Ball is a celebration of soccer played with passion by the poor people of Brazil who stage their own more humble rival World Cup every year with playoffs among fourteen teams from Rio's favelas named after the big international professional squads. This film is not a conventional documentary. You get a strong visual and auditory experience, but you won't come away with many specifics. Campo de Jogo ("Playing Field," the film's original Portuguese name) is done in an observational style similar to the work coming out of or inspired by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

    The result is a treat to the senses, but not a conventional film where the local conditions are described or the progress of a game studiously followed. We get up close, very close, particularly with coaches' pep talks ("today the sun will be cold for you"), the teams' dedicatory chant of the Lords Prayer and two Hail Marys, fights with referees, and penalty shots. And we get a good look at young male spectators who almost become a part of the game, and we get up close to fans of all ages and both sexes.

    The game's the thing, and the roar and movement and excitement of the crowd who are one with it. But coverage is more impressionistic than literal. Though they focus mainly on the championship between Geração (from the Matriz favela) vs. Juventude (from the Sampaio favela), Rocha and his editor Renato Vallone present the film as the flow of a day on the field, but don't restrict themselves to one game. With a team of cameramen collaborating for the razor-sharp and glowing, precisely colored images of spectators and games, they splice other games in, and interrupt them impulsively with sudden passages from Puccini or Wagner. Weissberg suggests in his Rio Variety < review that the way the game's "balletic energy" is captured is analogous to "cadenzas." Maybe the filmmakers see the game's surges of energy as arias -- alternating with slow periods, since the main game is kept no-score most way by cagey Geração's holding patterns. There's also music from Hector Villa-Lobos, and the final credits are enlivened by the elegant, precise rhythms of Jorge Amorim.

    Eryk Rocha is the son of the late Gabriel Rocha, founder of social activist school of Cinema Novo and one of Brazil's great directors. This is an exquisite film, and his father's idealism is present in the focus on the sport of the poor. The quality of the images is astonishing, the light and colors tuned exactly right. But this is a little bit different from going through Montana mountains with a herd of sheep or getting a fish-eye view of a New England boat (Castaing-Taylor's Sweetfgrass and Leviathan) or from wandering around a crowded Chinese park on a holiday (Harvard filmers Cohn and Sniadecki's People's Park). Those are more obviously exotic experiences, and it's no coincidence that the GoPro fish-eye view one is the most powerful. Watching a soccer match is something we've nearly all done, and this version of one, beautiful though it may be as an art piece, tends to best mimic what it's like to watch a sport without understanding it, i.e., the viewpoint of a small child (if any exist in Brazil so small they don't know their soccer) or the most disinterested of wives. It seems odd to use the Harvard Ethnography Lab approach to such a highly structured and meaning-drenched event as a soccer championship, and the event, seen this way, seems, however beautiful and passionate, to be warring with itself. At times if feels as if it has been drained of usual meanings more than it's been endowed with new unexpected ones. More appropriate: a week in the locker room.

    Sunday Ball/Campo de Jogo,, 71 mins., debuted at Rio, Dec. 2014, also showing at MoMA Feb. 2015. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. See SFIFF schedule.

    US theatrical release Cinema Village NYC 11 Dec. 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-07-2015 at 03:14 PM.

  12. #12
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    SWORN VIRGIN (Laura Bispuri 2015)



    Seeking to undo a tradition-honored gender switch

    With well-known Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher (who recently starred in her sister's prize-winning The Wonders/Le meraviglie) as its protagonist, Laura Bispuri's austere film tells a reverse transgender tale. Rohrwacher is Hana/Mark, a woman from a subset of Albnian society where female-to-male transitions are a long cultural tradition. But having lived as Mark for 14 years, she chooses the tricky path of reentering her biological gender role and living as a woman again. This is an original angle on a trendy theme, but "austere" is even putting it somewhat mildly to describe the very restrained manner in which the theme unfolds. Variety's Guy Lodge reasonably sees an audience-stimulating potential for debate in Virgin's retro angle on its trendy theme, but even he grants "a few storytelling lulls": the film could have used more emotional openness, a bit of humor, a bit of danger, and a lot more momentum.

    What it has is a technical polish, especially in the visuals that provide a splendid contrast between the striking blue mountain expanses of Albania and the warmer clutter of the city of Milan. Mark/Hana's voyage between these contrasting environments provides a strong objective correlative for her personal transformation.

    A well-known part of the code of "Kanun" of Hana/Mark's remote mountain society permits women to chose to live as men if, in a solemn ceremony held before the men of the village, they swear to live a life of celibacy. This is called burrnesha (sworn virgin), which means taking a vow of lifelong chastity. But Bispuri's tight-lipped film leaves us to piece this together gradually, withholding an explicit explanation till halfway through. We are also left to pick up that this custom is a way out of the culture's ingrained sexism, which imposes a particularly servile role on women. Living a a man, a woman who embraces burrnesha exchanges the restriction of servility for the restriction of a life of strict chastity.

    Renouncing sex can be a heavy price to pay for a few extra personal freedoms, and what happens is that Mark, ex-Hana, living these years in the Albanian region known by the evocative title of the Mountains of the Damned, has grown tired of a life where her chief indulgences consist only of the right to drink raki and the right to fire a rifle. Remembering her estranged sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli), who ran off on her own to Milan long ago to be married, Mark-Hana leaves home for the first time and travels to Italy, surprising Lila with a completely unannounced and initially not particularly welcome visit.

    This un-fun event is enlivened in an essential way by an ongoing series of flashbacks to the two sisters' earlier lives back home in the mountains. Actually it turns out Hana (played as a teenager by Drenica Selimaj) is not Lila's blood relation but a lost girl who got adopted into a family without boys, only a daughter, Lila (as a girl, Dajana Selimaj). In between the many flashbacks, Lila's teenage Italian daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), provides a kind of reality-check or doubtful audience POV with the question: "Are you a fag or a cross-dressing lesbian?"

    Then, still alternating with the flashbacks, Mark begins the transition back to Hana, involving scenes at a swimming pool where Jonida is in a synchronized swimming team (suggesting Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies?); an apartment of her own provided by Lila's husband (Luan Jaha); and a dead-end job as night manager of a parking garage.

    As Hana/Mark, Alba Rohrwacher, resembling a less stylish Tilda Swinton, isn't ever fully male or fully female, seeming awkward in either role, her mannish jeans outfit and short haircut hardly making her begin to pass as a guy, her switch back to feminism not really soft or natural. And this vague unisex neutrality is apparently the point. But while thought-provoking, Virgin is a story that fails to engage emotionally, just as Rohrwacher fails to convince as either male or female. This lack of conviction may be partly explained because this is a story about a woman who took on living as a man not out of emotional need but to escape repressive customs for women -- something her sister Lila did simply by fleeing to a marriage in Milan. But more traditional storytelling would involve some rough scrapes for somebody whose sex-change is so unconvincing.

    Sworn Virgin may be a bit too subtle and understated for its own good (perhaps needing the balls Mark/Hana lacks), but is still an elegant and distinctive feature debut for Bispuri, who adapted the novel by Elivira Dones with co-writer Francesca Manieri.

    Alba has also starred or costarred in The Man Who Will come/L'uomo che verrà and I Am Love/Io sone l'amore (both from 2009), and 2010's The Solitude of Prime Numbers/La solitudine dei numeri primi, and has a number of upcoming films. Androgyny is all the rage.

    Sworn Virgin/Vergine giurata, 84 mins., in Albanian and Italian, debuted in competition at the Berlinale 12 Feb. 2015. Other fests include Hong Kong, Tribeca, and Buenos Aires. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 2, 4, and 7 May 2015.

    SFIFF Screenings
    Sat, May 2 6:00 pm/Clay
    Mon, May 4 8:30 pm/PFA
    Thurs, May 7 8:30 pm/Clay
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-05-2015 at 02:11 PM.

  13. #13
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    EL CORDERO (Juan Francisco Olea 2014)



    More dark satire from Chile, with a religious focus

    Chilean director Juan Francisdco Olela's debut feature film is a dark comedy toying with the conceit that if a devout Catholic can be tormented by guilt, he might be even more bothered by the lack of it. This is what happens to the pious Domingo (Daniel Muñoz) when he shoots and kills his secretary while she's in the office having sex with her boyfriend, mistaking her for an intruder, and feels nothing. We have already been introduced to Domingo's frustrated wife Lorena (Trinidad González) and his enigmatic teenage son Roque (Alfonso David). And to his clueless jerk of a father-in-law and boss, Don Patricio (Julio Jung), the one who obligingly brought in the pistol. Horrified at his lack of feeling, Domingo repairs to his trendy, singing priest, Padre Efraín (Roberto Farías), who sends him, as penance, to visit Chester (Gregory Cohen), a criminal in prison. Not a good idea, since Chester, jokingly, winds up goading Domingo into committing other crimes. Ostensibly this is to reawaken his superego.

    But what is happening? The movie turns into a kind of oblique moral thriller as Domingo, the hollow "good" man, turns into an inept sociopath. Domingo's wife feels abandoned, and his son Rogue is troubled with parallel doubts and involved in misdeeds that are the more interesting for being masked. The disintegration of the family is secured when Paula (Isidora Urrejola), a sexy young relative, takes over the deceased secretary's place in the office, and begins to be more and more part of the household. Whatever her involvement with Roque, it's not what you might expect.

    The fresh angle of El Cordero is the gradual and unexpected ways in which Domingo makes his slide over toward the dark side in what may be a search for an authentic moral sense or simply a discovery of his true nature. On the surface, El Cordero looks like a conventional movie about repression and conventionality, but due to the oblique twists of Nicolás Wellmann’s screenplay, it keeps us guessing.

    The nonbelievers among us may see El Cordero as primarily poking satirical fun at fake modern day religiosity, but Chilean critic Camillo Rojas, in the online journal Revius, points other, more serious implications for Chileans. He says "The Lamb [as in sacrificial, the meaning of the Spanish title] is an account of the atrocities that may be committed in the name of (or covered by) faith," Rojas writes. "It is also a portrait of a post-dictatorship in which conservatism still reigns as an implicit rule, in the subconscious of a society that increasingly struggles to achieve more liberal attitudes." Rojas stresses that the film's set in the Nineties, when Chile was most struggling to extricate itself from the remnants of dictatorship.

    These points add to our understanding of a movie that might otherwise just seem a somewhat oddball Latin American stab at existential comedy seen through a Catholic lens. But even with a richer sense of its possible local significance El Cordero still utterly pales next to its older relations, Pablo Larraín's brilliant, bracingly black dictatorship-period Chilean films, the 2008 Tony Manero and 2010 Post Mortem. Likewise, needless to say that Daniel Muñoz, whose job, which he performs most ably, is to represent the existential crisis of an empty man, can't compare with the priceless Alfredo Castro, nor can Olea's tongue-in-cheek satire and slightly bungled thriller match Larrain's unforgettable Charles Addams drolllery. But the transition from dictatorship is harder to handle than the full-on madness. Even Larraín lost some of his punch with his transitional Pinochet-referendum tale No (2012), starring Gael García Bernal.

    Olea and Nicolás Wellmann present the action in a way that's somewhat more oblique than can be satisfying. In compensation their story intrigues, and doesn't overstay its welcome. But Chicago blog critic Tim Brayton points out that the writing grows diffuse and muddled as it goes along and secondary characters are too underwritten to set of the protagonist and give his emptiness dimension.

    El Cordero ("The Lamb"), 90 mins., debuted in October 2014 at the Biarritz and Chicago festivals and showed at Santiago and several other events, but has not had major reviews. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 1, 3, and 7 May 2015 in competition for the SFIFF narrative feature prize.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-05-2015 at 05:04 PM.

  14. #14
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    VERY SEMI-SERIOUS ( Leah Wolchok 2014)



    Here at The New Yorker: a cartoon survey

    We have already had a film available in a YouTube video, Bob Mankoff: The Anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon (actually just a condensation of a Bob Mankoff lecture), and Every Tuesday, a Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists , a movie made by Rachel Loube (SFJFF 2013) about some of the cartoonists and the weekly selection process. And less an in-house New Yorker story but more interesting yet, we've had Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck's documentary, The Art of Spiegelman (2010). So did we need another film, feature length, about New Yorker cartoonists? Well, yes, we did, actually. They are a significant cultural institution, and those films still left a lot unsaid, particularly the story of great New Yorker cartoonists now no longer living, and a sense of the new generations coming. Leah Wlochok's film gives us a bit of both, a quick history begun by editor in chief David Remnick and continued by the subject, again, the current cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff. A look at two of the oldest living ones, Mort Gerberg, who's 84, and George Booth, who's 88. Booth's still submitting cartoons. Gerberg seems to consider himself a back number, but he still plays at a New Yorker baseball game. There's a glance at older greats like Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams, James Thurber, and Saul Steinberg, none of whose like, as current editor Mankoff notes, we will see again.

    The film comes to life with two newcomers, both delicate, slightly odd souls. First is Liana Finck, graphic novelist and aspiring one-panel cartoonist, whom the film follows home a bit. She says she may have Asperger's. Cartooning is clearly her passion. Bob Mankoff encourages her, but suggests she try to make her drawings communicate more directly. No such problem with the very quiet Edward Steed, who grew up on a farm in England. With him it's love at first sight. His loose, quirky drawings look a little like William Steig, and also like Fifties Punch cartoons (or so it seemed to me, before I knew he was English). When he walks out of his Tuesday meeting, Mankoff says, "He's a genius!" Steed has big blue eyes, pale skin. He's rather beautiful, and pure (as in Liana Finck in her way too). Steed was traveling in Vietnam, and saw New Yorker cartoons on the Internet for the first time, and knew at once, "It wasn't so much I wanted to do it. I knew I could do it. I wanted to do something." And he was looking for something to do with the rest of his life. Plainly, he has found it. His first published cartoon in the magazine was 4 March 2013, but there are already 79 of his cartoons in the New Yorker cartoon bank. Genius.

    I don't know exactly how being a New Yorker cartoonist works. Are even ones like Roz Chast, who's had 1,231 cartoons published, simple free lancers? It seems they all come in on Tuesdays and show what they've got to Mankoff, and he picks his faves and runs them by editor-in-chief David Remnick, who puts them in the "Yes" and "No" baskets. It's pointed out that it's a part-time job for some, perhaps many; another source of income is needed. Carolita Johnson (92 cartoons) is a "pattern model." Zach Kanin is a "Saturday Night Live" writer. Bruce Eric Kaplan ("BEK"), whose cartoon style is very distinctive, and his signature, the three initials in separate boxes, familiar, is a TV writer and producer. Young Farley Katz is an ad copywriter. But aren't some salaried? Wasn't Peter Arno? Surely Charles Addams was? Such delicate matters are omitted.

    Speaking of delicacy, right after 9/11 -- to whose site Condé Nast moved the magazine's offices this year -- the issue had no cartoons. There was just one submitted that was used. Leo Collum's set in a bar of a woman talking to a man: "I never thought I'd laugh again, till I saw that jacket." BEK did one several months later: "It's hard, but slowly I'm getting back to hating everyone." Many of the cartoonists are Jewish. But some of the great ones are not.

    Wolchok, a woman, makes reference to current female cartoonists. She does not refer to the most famous one, Helen Hokinson, whose clubby women were once a fixture; but it's understandable. Hokinson died in 1949. My mother, who taught me about "Helen Hokinson women," subscribed to the magazine in the Twenties and Thirties -- it's heyday. But Wolchok is too young to know about that time. In fact, this is too large a subject for a short feature film. There have been over 50,000 New Yorker cartoons. They have reflected the many stages American culture and New York have gone through. There are collections. This is just a glimpse.

    Part of the history is that many magazines, like Esquire, Look, the Saturday Evening Post, used cartoons, and older cartoonists like Gerberg submitted to all these; they were not just "New Yorker cartoonists," but cartoonists. Most of the other magazines cut out cartoons, or vanished, and The New Yorker's association with cartoons has remained the most lasting and essential. However, the notion that there is a "New Yorker cartoon" is one that's not worked out. The best cartoons are often both universal and timeless. This seems definitely to be true of Edward Steed's.

    Perhaps inevitably, Wolchok anchors her film with a recurring focus on Bob Mankoff, who himself is writing a memoir of his life in cartoons, and we see him not only doing his job, and at home, but working with an editor of his coming book, which has as its title his most famous cartoon's line, "Does Never Work for You?" Though perhaps not the most interesting subject, he is articulate, and is both one of the magazine's most often published cartoonists and now its editor. (Lee Lorenz was head of the department from 11973 to 1997: thats as far back as she goes.) Mankoff lost his son a year or so ago, we learn, and he he is working comedy while dealing with personal tragedy -- as well as the decision to sell the house and move with his wife with a new one, to try to start anew. He comments that he can (is it true?) edit cartoons just as well when he's in a bad mood. Is it important to know he hated his mother, or that he thinks cartoonists need to have had lousy childhoods? (It looks like Edward Steed didn't; that he merely has always "had an odd view of things.")

    Wolchok has produced another, and longer, and valuable movie about New Yorker cartoons. The Spiegelman one is still more interesting, because it focuses on a more interesting life in more detail. But she keeps a light touch. The photography is sometimes shaky, not in a Bourne movie way, just in a clumsy way. But the job gets done. And to meet the young cartoonists, especially Edward Steed, is a treat. But as Scott Foundas says in his Variety review, this film, its director's feature debut, "Doesn't strive to be comprehensive." Perhaps it shouldn't be heavy handed in dealing with such light stuff, but there's much more to say.

    Very Semi-Serious, 83 mins., is a new film, which debuted at Tribeca 19 April 2015. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 1,3, and 5 May, and won the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary Feature. (The larger doc award went to Bill Turner Ross's Western, which I reviewed in New Directors/New Films in March.)

    A Steed cartoon:
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-07-2015 at 01:19 PM.


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