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Thread: San Francisco International Film Festival 2014

  1. #1
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    San Francisco International Film Festival 2014

    San Francisco International Film Festival 2014 April 24-May 8

    The San Francisco film festival had its opening press conference and announced its full program Tuesday, 1 Apri 2014. Filmleaf links and comments thread begins HERE. Click on the logo above for that program. You can get a SFIFF 2014 online film guide HERE or a PDF file of the catalog HERE

    Links to the reviews:

    20,000 Days on Earth (Ian Forsyth, Jane Pollard 2014)
    Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat 2013)
    Amazing Catfish, The/Los insólitos pesces gato (Claudia Sainte-Luce 2013)
    Bad Hair/Pelo malo (Mariana Rondón 2013)
    Child of God (James Franco 2013)

    Club Sandwich (Fernando Eimbcke 2013)
    Dear White People (Justin Simien 2014)
    Double, The (Richard Ayoade 3014)
    Dune, The/La dune (Yossi Aviram 2013)
    Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo 2014)

    Freedom Summer (Stanley Nelson 2014)
    Happiness (Thomas Balmès 2014)
    Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin 2013)
    Heaven Adores You (Nikolas Dylan Rossi 2014)
    History of Fear (Benjamin Naishat 2013)
    If You Don't, I Will (Sophie Fillières 2014)
    Last Weekend (Tom Dolby, Tom Williams 2014)
    Manos Sucias (Josef Wladyka 2014)
    Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit 2013)
    Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz 2013)

    Obvious Child (Gillian Robbespiere 2014)
    Of Horses and Men (Benedict Erlingsson 2014)
    Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo 2013)
    Palo Alto (Gia Coppola 2013)
    Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully 2014)
    Reconstruction, The/La reconstrucción (Juan Taratuto 2013)
    Return to Homs (Talal Derki 2013)

    Salvation Army (Abdellah Taïa 2013)
    School of Babel (Julie Bertucelli 2014)
    South Is Nothing/Il Sud è niente (Fabio Mollo 2013)
    Stop the Pounding Heart (Robert Minervini 2013)

    Stray Dogs (Tsing Ming-liang 2013)
    Tamako in Moratorium (Nobuhiro Yamashita 2013)
    Tangerines (Zaza Urshadze 2013)
    Tip Top (Serge Bozon 2013)
    Tonnerre (Guillaume Brac 2013)
    Trap Street (Vivian Qu 2013)
    We Are the Best! (Lucas Moodysson 2013)
    We Come As Friends (Hubert Sauper 2014)
    When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu 2013)
    White Shadow (Noaz Deshe 2013)
    Young and Beautiful (Francois Ozon 2013)
    The Dog (Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren) NYFF 2013 sidebar - saw but did not review

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 02:47 PM.

  2. #2
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    PING PONG SUMMER (Michael Tully 2014)



    A little coming of age movie set in the Eighties

    Michael Tully's little tale of a boy about to enter ninth grade doesn't make waves or create deep emotional conflicts. Tully delivers something that succeeds on its unambitious level very well, because he plays it simple and straight. His hero is Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), a boy who'll enter ninth grade in the fall in Mount Airy, Maryland. He and his little family are vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland. And so it comes to pass that Rad has to beat the local bully, the nasty, older and bigger rich boy Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) at a ping pong challenge staged between the two of them at the all-important teen center, the "Fun Hub." Lyle and his even nastier chunky redheaded sidekick Dale Lyons (Andy Riddle) deliver a little dose of humiliation to Rad every time they come across him. But what's surprising is how easy everything is for Rad. He's not into making waves. If you enjoy this movie, it will be because you like looking at the cute boys (especially the adorable, rosy cheeked Marcello) and girls (especially his would-be love, putative cocaine addict and former Lyle girlfriend Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley) and admiring their Eighties clothes, listening to their Eighties music, watching them do their Eighties things. Rad isn't just into ping poing; he works on his break dancing moves all the time, as does his new best friend Teddy Frye (Myles Massey), who brings his dad's giant boom box to the beach, and the outfits and hairdos are to be savored in every scene. Though this aspect never takes over, Ping Pong Summer is as much as anything a quiet celebration of American pop history. Some of the cast come from Maryland, and the movie shows all the iconic locations and joints for those who have memories of summers at the eastern shore resort: Tully is looking at his own past through rose-colored glasses here.

    Not least of the movie's achievements, Tully manages, if only briefly, to make table tennis seem exciting and suspenseful. For the finale is a sporting event: a ping pong challenge in which Rad must try to beat Lyle, one-on-one, before a full Fun Hub audience. Typical of the way the underdog isn't having it really all that hard at all, Rad has plenty of support at the challenge match. In fact he seems to have a bigger claque on hand than the not-so-popular Lyle. In the forefront is his family, his mom (All the Right Movies' Lea Thompson), benevolent Irish Dad (John Hannah), and goth older sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook), who's on the way to become more cheerful and mainstream and fully cheers Rad on. Essential to Rad's edge in the match is the surprise help he gets from the outcast neighbor Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), who turns out to have been a ping champion in her time and gives Rad some last minute Karate Kid-like coaching. One would like to say this relationship is interesting, but both the part and the performance of Randi are sketchy. But we accept this device because it's a convention of it fits, like everything else.

    It's impossible to dislike the handsome and classic-featured Marcello Conte as Rad. He is such eye-candy he has only to walk around on camera; but his part is too neutral and underwritten. Granted male teens are notoriously enigmatic. But except for some tears when he's had the opportunity to kiss Stacey on the beach at night and blows it (while Teddy's striking out similarly at another location), Rad rarely registers emotion. Example: when Randi appears and calls Rad over mid-match and asks him what he's doing, he mumbles, "Losing, I guess," as if he were a mere spectator of his own life. Is this the zen of ping pong?

    Miles Massey, whose talking just like a white boy is unexplained by his more ethnic black dad, is a cheerful, lively element that's underused. So is the goth sister. And the aunt (Amy Sedaris) and uncle (Robert Longstreet) to whom the Miracles pay an obligatory visit with obligatory crab feast -- tough to be confronted by a table piled high with dead crabs if you're timid, or a vegetarian -- are a bit too extreme and even repulsive for this movie's otherwise gentle comedy style. For some reason -- flawed publicity? -- summaries of this movie repeatedly describe Rad as 13, but if he were that age and about to enter ninht grade, he'd have to have been four years old when he started grade school. The actor's looks make him more like 14 or 15, which he should be. The way Stacy immediately eyes him with interest seems strange since at times she looks like she could be his young mother. However, flawed though it may be, Ping Pong Summer does right what it does, which makes it gentle, unchallenging, and sweet without ever being clichéd or saccharine. But equal to or even much like a classic Eighties film this is not.

    Ping Pong Summer, 92 mins., was produced with aid from the San Francisco Film Society Kenneth Rainin Foundation and debuted at Sundance January 2014. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival of 2014 (24 Apr.-8 May). Released in theaters and on VOD Friday, June 6, 2014.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-28-2014 at 11:46 PM.

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    THE DUNE (Yossi Aviram 2013)



    Crossed paths, lost links

    The relaxed, beautifully constructed film The Dune, the auspicious directorial debut of Israeli cinematographer Yossi Aviram, presents us with a simple concatenation of events. In the prelude before the opening titles, we see a man crossing open country on a bike. Then we see that man, Hanoch (Lior Ashkenazi, Footnote, Yossi) in Israel. He plays chess with an older friend, Fogel (Moni Moshonov), and, seeming lost and distracted after breaking with his pregnant wife Yaël (Dana Adini), sets off from his bike shop with a bike and a big bag on his back. As the film proper begins, Reuven Vardi (Niels Arestrup, The Beat My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) , of the missing persons department of French police, confronts Moreau (Matthieu Amalric, in a cameo), a writer who has run away from his life. The attempt to get this man to return to his wife and kids fails; Moreau commits suicide while Reuven is waiting to take him to dinner. Feeling like an aging burnout, Reuven is back in Paris with his longtime lover Paolo (Guy Marchand, Cousin, Cousine, Coup de Torchon). The whim of the owner's son will force them to move from their familiar apartment. Meanwhile, a young pregnant woman called Fabienne (Emma de Caunes) finds a man unconscious on a river bank, unable to say who he is. Reuven is called on but refuses to take on the case, believing himself finished. But this is a coincidence, a big one. Jay Weissberg, reviewing The Dune at San Sebastien for Variety, called it "an uncommon film of great sensitivity," and remarked that Aviram "proves exceptionally gifted with his stellar cast, whose nuanced performances find gold in the spare script." Very true. What a pleasure to watch Arestrup and Amalric, two of the best French film actors of the last 20 years, acting together, even if for only a few minutes.

    Paths gradually and inexplicably cross. Hanoch is wandering in Paris, trailing Reuven. Then he is found by a dune, with nothing but a clipping about Moreau. The man, who we realize is Hanoch, does not speak. No one is looking for him, he has no identification. Reuven is depressed after his failure with Moreau and retires early, but his boss Audiberti (Jean-Quentin Châtelain) lures him back for for that classic, one last case. And it's a tough one. But he cracks it.

    The silence of Hanoch is emblematic of a film in which people speak with their presences and their faces, Arestrup's and Ashkenazi's most of all. Ashkenazi's expressions, which have a soulful machismo that reminded me of the great Vincent Lindon, are of an old sadness being awakened. Arestrup's express a noble, elegant weariness. As Weissberg says, the meandering, mysterious, suggestive film is anchored by the solid relationship between the two gay men, Reuven and Paolo; and also by the limpid images of cinematographer Antoine Heberle. Even in its first few moments, in a brief role, speaking only a few words, Dana Adini quickly establishes the sophistication of this film with her naturalness and air of intelligence. This is an example of how well a movie can work that's delicate and suggestive, weaving its lived-in scenes and convincing cast into a melding of mood and quiet revelation.

    The Dune/La dune, 85 mins., in French with some Hebrew, debuted at Haifa and San Sebastien. Release in France 13 August 2014. Screened for this review as part of the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (24 Apr.-8 May).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 02:18 AM.

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    SOUTH IS NOTHING (Fabio Mollo 2013)



    Mafia pressure leads to heavy brooding in this youthful debut

    This moody, impressionistic Italian debut features a rebellious tomboy in Reggio Calabria who eventually learns that her fish vendor dad has been targeted by the Mafia. The relentlessly plain 17-year-old Grazia (the Italo-Swedish Miriam Karlkvist) gets lots broody silent moments. The filmmaker likes showing her swimming underwater; one of the times she seems to have seen the ghost of her missing brother. Her father Cristiano (Vinicio Marchioni) has a shop selling dried cod. Then the local Mafia boss drops by with a present and a firm recommendation: sell your shop (to the Mafia that is) and leave with Grazia for the North. He is noncommittal and ambivalent. He wants to resist, but the very fact of this situation makes him want to get out as soon as Grazia passes her state exams. There's the superstitious grandma, Cristiano's mom. There's a brother, Pietro, whom Grazia seems to worship, judging from how she treats his rowboat like an altar. He is gone. There is a religious service where he's remembered which for some reason grandma skips. It turns out his absence is mysterious. Grazia thinks she has seen him in a traveling carnival talking to Carmelo, (Andrea Bellisario), whom she therefore befriends, roughly, and they seem to bond. After half an hour we may begin to wonder why these people are so sullen and abrupt? The style can be grating at times; but Mollo follows through with conviction and good moments save this from being a mere exercise in Italian miserabilism. The actors are committed and Karlkvist, who acts her head off even if it's awfully one-note, got a European shooting star award for her performance.. Mollo doubtless knows what he is doing, but if yone looking for action or payoffs you'll walk out after the first reel. Mollo wants to make us uncomfortable, and at the same time, to enchant us. It's a tough game.

    An effective contrast is achieved with a big city-wide religious festival with a giant heavy shrine topped with a gold crown, masses of men garbed in red, ecclesiastics in white robes, crowded streets, and fireworks. The warm earth tones of this authentic night footage into which Grazia is woven contrast with the blue-tinged action that's come before as if to say Grazia and Cristianio's world exists on the lifeless fringes of the pulsing heart of Calabria, where it's the Mafia and the Church that make everything happen.

    This film hasn't so much a plot as a series of pouty gestures. Cristiano and Bianca (Valentina Lodovini), of the shop across the way, don't have a realtionshiop: she just grabs a couple of kisses and he pushes her away. Cristiano doesn't make a conscious decision about the Mafia pressure: he just grabs two sets of keys and smacks them down on a counter top.

    Grazia and later even Cristiano seem to see the missing Pietro (Giorgio Musumeci), though Cristiano tells Grazia "they shot him." What did happen to him? Maybe the Mafia "disappeared" him for some reason. We never know. The mood of anger and despair paralyzes the action. Grazia seems incapable of answering a single question at her orals, so passing her exams isn't in the cards. Carmelo develops a physical attraction to Grazia, which she rejects, but eventually they do get it on in Pietro's boat, making the event feel almost incestuous. Cristiano has turned the keys over to the Mafia boss's wife, but Grazia is unwilling to leave. What will happen to them? We never know. Things slide from brutal fact into comforting (but unconvincing) magic realism and the screen fades to black.

    The cinematographer Debora Vrizzi and director and other members of the film crew are recent graduates of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia of Rome, as is first-timer Andrea Bellisario. The film has an air of experimentalism and youth about it.

    South Is Nothing/Il Sud è niente, 86 mins., in Italian, debuted at Toronto Sept. 2013 and has shown at big fests, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo. Is was screened for this review as part of the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (24 Apr.-4 May). Also included in the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, June 2014.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 02:16 AM.

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    THE AMAZING CATFISH (Claudia Sainte-Luce 2013)



    Togetherness, sought by an outsider

    The premise of the Mexican director Claudia Sainte-Luce's debut is that Claudia (Ximena Ayala), an exceptionally lonely, isolated young woman, meets a sick lady and her family when she's in the hospital to have her appendix removed, and she latches onto them for the company she's never had. Given that Martha (Lisa Owen), her hospital neighbor, is seriously ill, and there is no father around, and at least two of the kids are school age, one a mere tyke, Claudia comes in handy at times staying with Martha at the hospital, since she is constantly in and out, or accompanying the pretty Mariana (Andrea Baeza) and little Armando (Alejandro Ramírez-Muñoz) by bus to school. Fat-girl Wendy is insecure and a little angry. "Why do you stay with us?" she asks Claudia, "Because it makes you happy?" Most responsible is Ale (Sonia Franco), 25, the eldest daughter. Catfish is about the busy energy of the four siblings as they interact with each other and with their mom -- who despite her condition, always has a weary smile and a positive attitude, which they all could use, especially Claudia. This is a claustrophobic tale, and as Jay Weissberg of <a href="">Variety</a> wrote at Locarno, if you find the family charming the film may strike you as sweet and touching, but if they only seem kooky -- or perhaps a sad mess -- you will reject everything.

    To do Sainte-Luce credit, she doesn't make anything too simple, and every little scene has a distinctive texture, even though she never tells us much about her protagonist. Claudia only tells Martha privately (the children are not to know) that she has been "alone" since the age of two, when her mother died, and knows nothing of her father. How she was raised and how she came to be working in a large supermarket, how she has lived up to now, is a mystery, and there isn't much depth to the children either. Ale is rarely heard from; she has too much responsibility to talk about herself. (And yet the madness of the family, its tendency to go off in wrong directions, shows that it lacks firm guidance.) Armando is just a cute little kid. Mariana just thinks of her hair and makeup. Wendy has a "healing" class, and of course body issues; but she is a presence, a big presence. Martha has had three men in her life. These are not profound revelations. The real subject is the group dynamic, and how for Claudia, who has been so utterly deprived, this dynamic can seem incredibly warm and enveloping even though nothing here is easy, and tragedy is coming, since Martha will die, infected with a fatal illness she got from the last, best man in her life, who died of it himself years before.

    The busy craziness of a family is best captured in the early scenes, when they pick up Claudia, walking home after her operation, and Claudia can't seem to pull herself away from their cluttered house and nonstop bantering, tussling talk. With some difficulty Sainte-Luce juggles the story line of Claudia's job with that of the family with their various chores -- taking Martha to and from the hospital, staying with her there, minding the younger kids. Armando's job is doing the laundry and washing up, which of course he doesn't always remember to do: he's just a kid. What exactly is happening with Claudia's job? She's demoted to selling from a cart and being paid only by what she sells at the market, punishment for missing too many days when she got caught up in the family's life after her appendectomy. Christmas is coming, and a whole sequence of a Christmas party at work that Claudia takes Mariana and Armando to, with Mariana getting drunk on rum, is well done and adds flavor, yet seems also somewhat irrelevant.

    Something more decisive has to happen, and Martha, languishing in the hospital yet still a warm spirit, insists they all need a vacation. So despite objections from Ale, they all go to the beach for a couple of days, leading to a Little Miss Sunshine shot by the roadside with their shiny little yellow VW bug piled high on the roof with baggage; and Armando has brought the fish Claudia has given him. They bury Martha in the sand, dodge sunburn and mosquito bites, end the day with a merry picnic dinner -- till it's all cut short when Martha becomes very ill and they must drive back. This is where Armando, alone with Claudia, very justifiably cries. If there has been an allusion to Little Miss Sunshine it's a reminder that this movie is far more sentimental and sad.

    But Catfish maintains a lively rhythm, that hustle and bustle poor Claudia finds so comforting as an antidote to her previously empty and joyless life. (She has to learn to laugh; but as Martha points out, she doesn't even smile.) Sainte-Luce, whose subtly feminine point of view is clear -- the only male is a little boy, has lucked out with the illustrious French cinematographer Agnès Godard as her d.p., who brings subtlety and beauty to every shot. The sound design is sometimes allusive and surprising, but understated, and there is hardly ever any music: the voices of the girls provide their own music.

    The Amazing Catfish, Los insólitos pesces gato, 85 mins., debuted and won the Youth Prize at Locarno, and was included in the Discovery section at Toronto, with some other festivals following. There has been a theatrical release in the Netherlands and is coming in Germany and France 8 and 28 May 2014 respectively. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 24 Apr.-4 May 2014.

    Strand Releasing will bring out this film 13 June 2014 in New York at the Village East Cinema. 20 June 2014 in Los Angeless. DVD (Strand Releasing) in the US 29 July 2014.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 02:15 AM.

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    THE RECONSTRUCTION (Juan Taratuto 2013)


    Rising to circumstance

    Taratuto's The Reconstruction is the austere, tight-lipped portrait of a man's late-blooming moral and emotional rebirth, revolving wholly around the appealingly haggard, bird-beaked actor Diego Peretti. It's all the more remarkable since these two have formerly collaborated only on light, talky romantic comedies like the 2004 It’s Not You, It’s Me and the 2007 Who Says It’s Easy? And these were set in the pair's native Buenos Aires, whereas this new film takes them out of their comfort zone into the nether regions of Patagonia, where a man (or a woman too) discovers what stuff he's really made of. Edoardo (Peretti) is a tough, driven, formidable oil company field boss, who travels around in the country's extreme south and makes things happen. A phone call from an old friend and work buddy is going to take him to Ushuaia, the furthermost town in Patagonia, to help out on some unspecified task, instead of taking his vacation. His friend Mario, played by Alfredo Casero, also by trade normally a comedian, among other things, a roly-polly chap who owns and runs a big shop fully of mysterious geegaws now, has a wife and two two daughters. Mario's almost as mysterious as Edoardo. Eventually we learn why.

    Before Edoardo gets down there to see Mario and his family, the film deftly paints a portrait of what he's like now. He is so heedless and brutal he drives by a young woman out on the road, evidently the survivor of a bad car accident, wildly gesturing and calling for help. He's brusque with associates, showing zero charm and replying only when necessary, though when he does speak, what he says is quite routine and does the job. With Mario's family, Edoardo is almost comically oddball. He keeps his fingerless gloves on even at the dinner table, and eats meat and salad with his hands. Mario's wife Andrea (Claudia Fontan, in a strong performance), and two daughters, insecure teenager Cata (Eugenia Aguilar) and Ana (Maria Casali) -- who've all seen him before, it turns out much later, but so long ago the girls were too small to remember -- aren't exactly impressed. One daughter calls his way of eating "gross." But Mario says he needs somebody to take over his business while he goes in for something medical he doesn't specify, a "difficult test," and he's convinced Edoardo is the only one who can do this for him, so he tells Edoardo. And this the women accept.

    Who are these men? We never quite fully know. But somehow the unique frontier country of Patagonia suits them both. And somehow Patagonia is an environment in which distinctive cinema can bloom, as amply demonstrated by the films of Carlos Sorin. Mario is as warm and embracing -- he adores his daughters and treats them like miraculous little girls -- and ebullient and welcoming as Edoard is cold and craggy. Yet they both have in common this silence and mystery that's both off-putting and reassuringly macho. Edoardo's an oddball and it's obvious he must have some deep wound in his past. But his peculiarity is also assurance that convention won't ever keep him from being strong and doing what needs to be done. But what happens with Mario's test is a test for him too.

    We know what's coming: something radical that will shake Edoardo out of his shell and reawaken his inner humanity. Circumstances and challenges are going to give a shut-down man a second chance at life. We just don't know exactly how it's going to come. The beauty of Taratuto and Peretti's collaboration (very much one, since they coscripted the film) is not the "what" of the story but the "how," its confident style, born out of Peretti's innate physicality and the cold beauty of the snowy Patagonian winter landscape. Visuals are fine here, with many closeups on Peretti telling all that needs to be told. Notably two delicate shots, both through curtains, first in a hospital room, then in a shower, show how very fine and subtle the vision is here, and how quietly and elegantly it knows how to tease out profound emotion. The payoffs are simple too, hugs, a smile, a phone call. But they're like springtime after long winter.

    The Reconstruction/La reconstrucción, 93 mins., debuted at Venice (see Hollywood Reporter's favorable review by Jonathan Holland: he knows the earlier comedies, which I don't). It won awards at Havana (best actor), Valladolid (FIPRESCI), and Abu Dhabi (beest actor), Flanders Latin American Festival (best actor), and nominations elsewhere for best actor, actress, direction, editing, cinematography, art direction. Screened for this review as part of the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (24 Apr.-4 May).

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 02:01 AM.

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    BAD HAIR (Mariana Rondón 2013)



    Growing up in the Caracas projects

    In this distinctive if not altogether successful little film, 9-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) lives with his mother and baby brother in Caracas working class housing, depicted with documentary realism in the last days of Hugo Chavez. Dreaming of looking like a pretty young pop singer, Junior wants to straighten his frizzy hair in time for a class photo that his young mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) hasn't the money to pay for. His fantasies of changing his appearance lead Marta to think him gay, which she partly blames on her own failure as a mother. This is only a motif in a movie that's mainly about poverty in urban Venezuela and the fragility of a single parent family with a baby, a small boy, and a mother who has lost her job as a security guard. Much of the misery and discomfort in the film comes from the desperation of life without a job. Her efforts to get it back or get another job like it are futile. The father of her children died in a shooting. His mother (Nelly Ramos), who is black, wants custody of Junior. To please him, she straightens Junior's hair one day, half way, with a blow dryer. What about Junior? Is he gay? He seems only a skinny boy with delicate features, but there are quiet hints. He is fascinated by a handsome older boy (Julio Mendez) who runs the local newstand. He wants to take care of his mother and tells her he always will. Yet for much of the way David Rooney's statements about the film in Hollywood Reporter linking this film to Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose, Todd Haynes's Dottie Gets Spanked, or Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, (whose young girl clearly wants a sex change) seem to be stretching things. Rondón seems to have other things in mind. Clearly, Bad Hair is almost ruthlessly unsentimental. The relationship between Junior and Marta is uneasy. He must blame the lack of money on her. She lavishes most of her love on the baby, known, unceremoniously, as Baby, and regards Junior's possible oddity as a bother. The world outside is not friendly. There is none of the teeming intimacy even amid brutality of such Brazilian films as Hector Babenco's Pixote or the hyper-violent, richly plotted City of God.

    Marta resorts to sordid actions to regain her livelihood. Junion's reproachful looks seem justified, his forgiveness of his mother big spirited. Bad Hair is "observational," which means it meanders without much plot or structure, which makes it a slow watch. As a slice of life it has many moments, but coherence is lacking. However, the cast deliver good performances, particularly Castillo and Lange: scenes were improvised throughout, without the use of a learned script. A reasonably complex portrait of the mother-son relationship emerges that leaves resolution and his future quite naturally out of reach, while the world of Venezuela's failed social experiment is intensely present.

    Bad Hair/Pelo Malo, 93 mins., debuted at Toronto and San Sebastian Sept. 2013 and has been shown at many international festivals where the director has won numerous awards. In the US it debuted at Tribeca 20 Apr. 2014, and showed at San Francisco 1 May, the day of its theatrical release in Venezuela. Screened for this review as part of the SFIFF. It opened theatrically in France and received generally favorable reviews (Allociné press rating 3.5) Also reviewed favorably, with some reservations, by Jay Weissberg in Variety.US limited theatrical release 21 Nov. 2014 at Film Forum NYC.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-21-2014 at 09:35 AM.

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    LAST WEEKEND (Tom Dolby, Tom Williams 2014)



    Well-made film about California rich that's more pretty than moving

    It’s nice to see Patricia Clarkson starring in a movie. She’s an accomplished actress who has usually had secondary or low-keyed roles, but here, the action revolves around her. She is always impeccable. This is her strength and her weakness. She lends class to any production. But if only she had some rough edges!

    The title gives it away: this is Labor Day Weekend and it's the last weekend before the big family resort house on Lake Tahoe goes on the market, because Celia Green (Clarkson), the family matriarch, has decided to sell it, though she isn’t officially saying so. Her husband is the strong silent type. He exists only for a hug when needed and to tell her she’s not making a mistake. He made the money. These are rich white people. Sort of old nouveau riches. They didn’t inherit wealth, but they’ve had it long enough to look down on the dot com and app millionaires who got rich recently. The house signals the mystery of their status. It could be pre-war, but they couldn’t have owned it that long.

    This is frankly a movie that revolves around real estate. This too is a strength and weakness. It’s a fascinating subject, but it’s one that needs to be peripheral to human drama, and here it threatens to take center stage, the only topic that resonates and remains mysterious. At intervals the camera provides still views of the interior and exterior of the beautifully lived-in-looking house, with its many comfortable but quietly posh objects, its vast manicured and watered lawn, its views of the lake. But this is also a family drama in the classic mold, if in a distinctly lower key. There are no dramatic revelations or hysterical arguments as in Tracy Letts or his distinguished forebear Eugene O’Neill. Petulant older brother Roger (Joseph Cross) has something to reveal: he’s lost his stock trading company thirty million dollars by clicking the wrong tabs and is out of a job; but he reveals this only to his girlfriend and a woman he’ll never see again, Theo's TV star pal Blake Curtis (Jayna Mays). This is also a movie with a gay point of view, discreetly signaled by the fact that that gay brother, Theo (Zachary Booth, who co-starred in Ira Sachs' gay relationship saga <a href="">Keep the Lights On</a>), gets the nicest cuddles, with the new boyfriend he brings.

    This movie is also about objects (Celia has a fantastic basket collection she’s giving to a museum) and beautiful views -- and being willing to relinquish both. For what? What will Celia and her husband Malcolm (the blank-looking Chris Mulkey) use the many millions from the sale of this property for? Give them to charity? Invest them to make their children even richer? Buy a castle in Tuscany or an apartment in Paris? Apparently it would be indiscreet to say. The movie has chosen a house so perfect it seems stupid to sell it. (Turns out it belongs to Tom Dolby's family and he spent holidays there; and it's also where A Place in the Sun was shot in 1951 with Liz Taylor and Monty Clift.)

    The gay brother’s new boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye of TV's "Dexter") is poor. In one scene at a charity affair a neighbor lady asks him (so rude, yet so American, in so doing) what his parents do and he says, giving up the lies he’s told Theo, that they’re in building maintenance and food supply. “Oh, there’s a lot of money in that!” the lady exclaims. “No there isn’t,” he says. His discomfort has to be sorted out in private when he remarks that Theo uses seventy-five dollar cologne every morning, only takes taxis, buys objects that cost four thousand dollars. But Luke gets his moment. He’s an opera singer and while taking a shower, he sings “Nessun dorma” so Celia and his boyfriend can both hear. It’s gorgeous, and obviously he possesses something that may be worth a workout studio chain (the father’s lucrative business). We’ve had great gay opera lover scenes (in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia) but never a gay singer scene. Like everything in this move, it’s tasteful to a fault.

    A lovely voice may be better than money. But in fact, though, one trouble with Last Weekend, which despite a gentle tear or two is mostly far too impeccable to raise our blood pressure, is that it has an underlying tendency by implication to quantify and equate everything. The household staff – Hector, the grounds keeper (Julio Oscar Mechoso), is electrocuted fixing a lamp over the water and the parents must keep vigil at the hospital – Celia explains are "like family," but that does not mean they "are family." Approximately equal, not equal. There is an undercurrent of selling things. Theo wants Blake to "like" his script. She does; she says it’s "good," but what does "good" equal? He’s not sure. Roger's girlfriend Vanessa (Alexia Rasmussen) has a small business selling bottle water and she's brought boxes of it to promote. One flavor dubiously is called "Berrying You." She’s trying to get everybody to drink it, the father to use it in his gyms: to raise its value.

    And that happens, because, as Last Weekend draws to a close, everything is, as far as it can be, resolved. Finally it’s Labor Day and everybody has gone, leaving Celia and Malcolm to savor the last perfect bittersweet moment. Everyone is okay with their lives again, or at least they can pretend to be. And pretend they must: Blake Curtis, the TV star, who's a recovering addict, was listening to a motivational self-respect tape while jogging. Celia didn’t tell the kids she’s selling the house, she says, because she wanted this weekend to be "like every other summer weekend." A wise and pleasant desire, perhaps, but one that leads to blandness, away from any drama. Celia is a rather odd character, because she’s someone who always wants everything to be perfect, but is also admittedly often clumsy. What is she? She’s impeccable, but a bit of a cipher. She’s Patricia Clarkson. Is this what a rich lady is like? Is this what rich people’s lives are like? Little conflicts? Decisions that aren’t revealed? Finally Roger, the brother who’s lost his job, tells their father what’s happened, though we don’t see him tell it, and says he’s gotten a headhunter but wherever he goes he feels failure over him. "We all fail," says the father, reassuringly.

    Does Last Weekend itself fail? Sometimes it seems to resemble other similar dramas more in their mise-en-scène than their emotion, so we may only remember the lake views, Patricia Clarkson’s yellow hair, and "Nessun dorma." But the two Toms deserve credit for delivering a movie so elegant and so central to English and American ideas of wealth and society it makes one think, if only fleetingly, of Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

    Last Weekend, , 94 mins., written by Tom Dolby, premiered 2 May 2014 at the San Francisco Film Festival. Dolby comes from privilege himself, being the son of the late noise reduction/sound system czar and businessman Ray Dolby, and a graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale. He's a multi-hyphenate writer, filmmaker, TV person, and producer who has also been a gay activist. US theatrical release of Last Weekend begins 29 August 2014, and on 12 September it comes to the San Francisco Bay Area (Vogue Theater).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-03-2015 at 01:41 PM.

  9. #9
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    WHITE SHADOW (Noaz Deshe 2013)



    A boy in flight

    The Berlin-resident young Israeli director Noaz Deshe's remarkably promising debut feature has roughness and otherwise is a tough watch, but is packed with material, is deeply exotic yet immediate and real, and shows great flair, as well as a fascination with the tumult, color, humor, and violence of Africa.

    Action revolves around a teenage boy, Alias (Hamisi Bazili), who's an albino. It begins in a rural part of an unspecified African country (actually Tanzania) where albino body parts are sought by human trackers and sold to witch doctors for a very high price. In a poetic, violent, and muddled early section, this fate befalls Alias' albino father (Tito D. Ntanga), who one night is caught and hacked to death. Fearing for her son's life and unable to protect him, Alias' mother (Riziki Ally) sends him to live with her brother Kosmos (James Gayo).

    Events move from a Dickensian, marginal urban drama to a still more violent finale. After being exploited as a street peddler by the heavily debt-ridden Kosmos, who owes a gangsterish man for the truck he drives and can't pay, Alias and his small pal Salum (Salum Abdallah) wind up in a home for albinos. Salum claims he's a witch doctor himself, but others keep stealing his clients. Along the way the horror of albino persecution, which governments of three African countries and various local organizations are trying their best to combat, has been vividly brought to the life only fiction can bring.

    Sometimes the sequence is unclear, and it goes on a bit too long, and may seem longer because of a wavering narrative line. But White Shadow isn't so much about the action as about Noaz & Co.'s passion for the wildly chaotic world the film depicts with an eye for light and darkness, an absolute trust, well repaid, of the talented young debuting actors with intimate closeups, and an ability to orchestrate a whole village to engage in the fantasy of the film action, as is shown particularly in a funeral sequence and the violent finale.

    Improvisation can lead to funny and colorful dialogue. Take Alias' mother's advice shouted to him as she runs along the truck carrying him to the city: "Be careful. You are being watched. Be a man. Remember what you are and where you came from. Study hard, be respectful, get a home. Eat but not too much. Share with others. Use a condom, don't get AIDS. You can't cheat life. You will be judged for your actions. Stay away from drugs. Don't be a thief. Open a bank account."

    Indeed. Good advice. But Kosmos picks an unwise way to exploit a boy who needs to maintain a low profile, when he places him right off in busy traffic hawking sunglasses, DVD's, cellphones, computer parts, and other junk to passing drivers. At first Alias is shy, a washout. Then he rapidly develops a personality and plenty of moxie. From games he plays it looks like he's smarter than most around him. But it's a losing job and Kosmos seems as doomed as he is, with his debt.

    Another gem: "'Jesus'? That's just another word in English. Like saying 'fuck.'" This comes from Antoinette (Glory Mbayuwayu), Kosmos' daughter, whom Alias gets very close to. You couldn't make this stuff up.

    And the trade in albino parts is terribly real. Superstition reigns in the rural areas and the governments lack the clout to control it there.

    Deshe, who cowrote the screenplay and music with James Masson, and edited, directed, coproduced, and was one of the cameramen along with skilled German pro Armin Dierolf, found his two main albino actors through ARCT (The Albino Revolution Cultural Troupe), which is managed by Ntanga, who plays Alias' father. Both Hamisi Bazili and his frequent sidekick in the film Salum Abdallah are remarkable young actors. There's a scene in a junkyard when Alias picks up a dead cellphone and starts a made-up conversation with Antoinette watching, convinced it's real. We too look on fascinated, hanging on every word. Rough and confusing and overlong though White Shadow is, its filmmaker seems like a talented natural with a gift for making use of material at hand.

    Noaz Deshe also composed the soundtrack of Frontier Blues (2009), debut feature of Iranian director Babak Jalali, and has a graphic novel called In Case We Never Meet awaiting publication, so when he says in interviews that film is just one medium for him, it's not mere youthful boasting. White Shadow shows film is a medium he may want to continue pursuing. It got raves from Guy Lodge in Variety, (who calls it a "staggering debut"); and Boyd van Hoeij in Hollywood Reporter, who's more critical, but calls it "gripping" as well as "harrowing," and "easily accessible" and describes its young star as "terrific."

    White Shadow, 117 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2013 where it got the Luigi De Laurentis Lion of the Future (best debut) award, then showed at Sundance Jan. 2014. Coproduced by Ryan Gosling. Screened for this review as part of the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (24 Apr.-8 May 2014)..
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 01:16 AM.

  10. #10
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    PALO ALTO (Gia Coppola 2013)



    Kids on the loose

    Gia Coppola is Sofia's niece and Francis's granddaughter. In this feature film debut as a director, which is vivid and assured, if a little fragmentary, she has adapted stories from James Franco's collection of the same name, simplified them, and woven them together more. What we get is an up-to-date portrait of a group of white teenagers from a well-off community (where Standford University is and Franco grew up), who often gather at the house of one of them when adults are absent to party hard, with a bit of sex and plenty of strong weed and hard liquor. Three of them come forward, the quiet, artistic Teddy (Jack Kilmer, a complete newcomer, but son of Val) his more nihilistic and aggressive best mate Fred (Nat Wolff), and the virginal, sweet April (Emma Roberts). These kids live totally in the moment. Classes, college, or career ambitions go unmentioned. Adults are unseen, or when seen are often stoned or otherwise irresponsible. Val Kilmer is one of these parents never without a doobie or pipe. James Franco is the predatory soccer coach using babysitting as an excuse to seduce April. Fred's father (Chris Messina) turns out to be gay and gets high with Teddy and hits on him.

    Though the short-story-origin limits the action even in adaptation, the three main kids' acting, and others', is fine, and we just enjoy watching one well done scene after another. Maybe later we wonder about what's lacking, not in the filmmaking, but in the material. But Gia has a sure touch that makes her, like her grandfather and her aunt, one to wat​ch.​

    Clearly this is not the generation of Eighties S.E. Hinton novels with their working class realism, poverty and pregnancies that granddad Coppola tackled in The Outsiders and Rumblefish, and the Eighties youth picture era is long gone. There's also not the nice narrative curve Sofia Coppola had to deal with in her debut, The Virgin Suicides, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides, a more sophisticated literary source than the young James Franco.

    But currency and immediacy are strong here. Dialogue between Teddy and Fred in Fred's car starts things off with an ear for how these kids talk, peppered with terms of playful abuse like "dawg," "nigga" and "bitch," nearly every sentence containing an obligatory "fuckin." These words have no bite, but the edge is in Fred's firecracker personality. When Fred ends the scene by ramming the car into the wall it's facing, just for laughs, we know what Fred's like. Fred is a loose cannon, entering every scene with a genuine air of danger and unpredictability, which gets him the undiscriminatingly promiscuous Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia) till it doesn't. Various blowjobs by Chrissy punctuate the action along with party scenes. ​The key sequence developing Teddys character is when he and Fred are drunk and he's driving and crashes into a car at an intersection. True to his answer to one of Fred's "What if" questions, he chooses to drive off, which leads to a DUI year's probation and 100+ hours of community service, first at a children's library that he loves, till both he and Fred ​screw it up and he's shifted to an old people's home. These scenes alternate with drawing class with a blowhard teacher who, when Fred crashes the class and does a jokey drawing, warns him he's headed in the wrong direction -- foreshadowing Fred's dangerous finale.

    Kilmer junior is reportedly inexperienced as an actor, but you never see that. He's a natural, with an appealing loose-limbed look and style, and it's he who gives every scene he's in a nice flow. Wolff's job is the opposite: in his every scene he's working hard, challenging, provoking, questioning, seducing. In only one ​moment does he go still, and it​'​s a bad sign. Clearly Wolff's a hot young talent and the acting gives too much pleasure for us to worry about a lack of deep emotion and a desultory story line.

    ​The essential contrast in Coppola's skillful adaptation of the stories is between untrustworthy adult and clueless but innocent youth. On one hand is the older seducer, soccer coach Mr. B. (​James Franco​ himself, whose company Rabbit Bandini also produced). His employment of April as a babysitter for his video-game buff small boy has a transparent ulterior motive: seduction. And she wants this, though when she discovers B.'s kid has a second babysitter from the team who girlfriends have pointed to as beautiful, her focus will shift to ​the rudderless but sweet Teddy, the boy ​April's own age​ who is the natural choice, because he loves her. April is at sea with all this, as a scene with a guidance counselor shows: she has no college plans worked out. ​So there is no dramatic coming together of Teddy and April, and it's the better for being barely stated, only followup text messages​ and telling smiles. Though the film has mostly been notably intense and in-your-face, its excellence is in its also showing a knack for understatement and finding in Emma Roberts and Jack Kilme two actors who can underplay nicely. The movie felt right from the first few minutes, and half way in I was looking forward to watching it all again, and that doesn't happen very often.

    Palo Alto, 100 mins., debuted at Telluride August 2013, and is included at Tribeca 24 April 2014. It's the centerpiece film of the San Francisco International Film Festival showing 3 May, and begins a limited US theatrical release by Tribeca Films, 9 May 2014.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-12-2015 at 01:42 AM.

  11. #11
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    MARY IS HAPPY, MARY IS HAPPY (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit 2013)



    A Twitter romantic comedy

    The playful, drifty, metafictional Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is a film by Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit about two adolescent best friends in their last year of an all-girl high school. "Celine and Julie" have been mentioned, and, indeed, this film has several references to Godard, the Nouvelle Vague, and Wong Kar-wai. The focus is entirely on the flustered, fatalistic Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya), her useless love for a boy met by a snack stand called Gift and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui), who encounters a tragic event and may have had a mad crush on Mary. But most importantly all this action is based on 400+ Tweets in the Twitter feed of an actual adolescent girl, @marylony, which are shown in the middle of the screen all the way along and are woven verbatim into the dialogue and action.

    With this challenge to deal with, the screenplay has a shaky time getting started and seems not so sure of how to wind things up at the end, which may explain a 126-minute length for what is essentially lightweight material.

    There are running jokes. Mary has a cheap Chinese knockoff phone, an "iFeng" instead of an iPhone, so poorly made it repeatedly gives her electric shocks in the ear. After a while the school headmaster dies and is replaced by an absurdly fascistic one: once he take charge everything revolves around him. Classrooms are shut to use to store his possessions. The girls are no longer allowed to express an opinion about anything and the final exam is entirely focused on his life and tastes. Mary is editor of the senior yearbook but has no say in its color scheme, and it's made up to be thicker than the Cairo phone book because that makes it look important. She had wanted it to be thin and "minimalist" (though the motto "Less is Less" is glimpsed).

    Whimsy and surrealism are adopted to make the action fit with the unedited tweets. Thus at one point Mary purchases a mail order jellyfish that arrives frozen ("it's hibernating") and at another she winds up for a day or so in Paris -- perhaps a nod to Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It Over There?, which makes constant references to Truffaut's 400 Blows.

    Mary's tweets are constant, and sometimes are the same as what she's saying onscreen, though she's never actually shown tweeting. At times they are like proverbs or advice, such as "Our bodies change, but our hearts remain the same" or more neutrally, "Different rhythm, same understanding" or "Being correct can be a boundary," which are ambiguous, but made into comments on the action happening to Mary and Suri.

    At one point the film enters metafictional territory when Mary's seen in a drama class where the teacher criticizes her, or the film's plot. Mary and Suri are nearly inseparable. But while Suri is good humored and upbeat, the more sophisticated Mary's thoughts are full of worry. She and Suri often stroll along some abandoned railway tracks: the minimalist, Brechtian sets largely seem desolate or in storage, including the school), and there are only a handful of teachers or adults seen. Mary meets a handsome young man next to a food stand called Gift. She's instantly smitten and too shy to speak, but he surprises her by introducing himself all of a sudden and saying "I'm single." But thereafter he's a teaser who won't reveal if he's interested or not. When another boy called Pacoum turns up and says he's single and seems to care, Mary walks away.

    Events toward the last third are so unnerving to Mary that she gets into a state where she's sometimes unsure if she's dreaming or awake. Maybe the lack of realism in the school and other settings maybe all this is happening in Mary's head. Mary looks sometimes young and girlish and sometime mature, suggesting fanciful flashbacks. Suri comes upon Mary posing moodily with a cigarette and says to her, "What are you doing? This is no time for Wong Kar-wai. You don't even smoke."

    All this is handled lightly and deftly and with both humorous detachment and sympathy for teenage girlish angst, but it sounds better on paper than it plays out on the screen, due an unfulfilled need to pare down and sharpen up the dialogue and action, which the writer-director's conceptual method of slavishly following actual consecutive tweets makes impossible. The filmmaker's first film 36 had a successful festival run starting in 2012 and was well received by Variety's Richard Kuipers, as is this. 36 was about a photographer, which Mary partly is also, shooting portraits of classmates and even of her would-be boyfriend.

    Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, 127 mins., debuted 1 September 2013 at Venice, also playing at Busan and Tokyo; it got a Best Film nomination at Valdivia. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 24 April-8 May 2014. It shows 6 and 8 May.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 12:28 AM.

  12. #12
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    TAMAKO IN MORATORIUM (Nobuhiro Yamashita 2013)


    Yasuko Tomita and Atsuko Maeda in Tamako in Moratorium

    Japan has slackers too now

    "A bittersweet family dramedy that could be a contempo variant on Ozu's 'Late Spring,' wrote Maggie Lee for Variety when she watched this little Japanese film at Busan early last October. But while Ozu saw universal experience though a filter of Japanese culture, Yamashita views his cultural phenomena through a sociological lens. Cold economic reality is also part of how life is seen these days; but what appeals here is not so much any of that as the filmmaker's light ironic touch.

    And that touch is needed in pop star Atsuko Maeda's depiction of Tamako, the daughter home from college without a job, to avoid horror or contempt for such slacker behavior. The Japanese spoil and cherish their children, traditionally the male ones (see the comic "make my bed" sequences in The Family Game). The post war generations were tremendously motivated to reassert pride, to rebuild. Then came the economic miracle. Then came generations that were not only spoiled rotten but without motivation or pride. Enter Tamako. Her state of being is conveyed largely through mime. Just the way she lazily wolfs down a half-frozen rice cake for breakfast dully staring at the TV speaks volumes. In a way, though, she is just getting a chance to be a "teenager," a concept Americans got to explore in the Fifties and Sixties, but that the Japanese could not afford nor allow in earlier decades.

    Yamashita handles the pace nicely, the long routine while Tamako drifts with food, sleep, TV, manga graphic novels, and video games suddenly broken by the angry outburst of her father (Suon Kan) and her reply that she will do something when the time comes, but that is certainly not now! The passage, or the dragging along, of time is designated by the Ozu-esque method of seasons, beginning with fall and shifting into winter, then spring, then summer when things finally happen. Tamako lives alone and friendless with her father, who runs a local sporting goods store catering to schools. The dwelling space is small and cluttered and packed in close to the shop, so Tamako is often in sight when dad is working. The question is, as the seasons pass: will she ever get a job, and how long will he put up with this? The low energy level is heightened by this being not the big city but Kofu in rural Yamanashi Prefecture (Japan Times informs us). Many eating scenes present a domesticity that oscillates between the cozy, the oppressive and the comical.

    The desultory, offhand movement of the piece leads, several seasons along, to acceptance of the inevitable. Tamako amusingly sends Hitoshi (Kiyoya Ito), the junior high boy she talks to (who explicitly has more going on than she does) to check out the divorced jewelry making teacher dad may be interested in (Yasuko Tomita), then goes herself and tries to discourage this lady by childishly expressing her own personal complaints about life with dad, ending with the criticism that he doesn't kick her out. Later, he does, perhaps responding from a tip from the new girlfriend. The casualness and spot-on observation is shown in the final lines, where the teenage boy tells Tamako he and his girlfriend "drifted apart" and Tamako laughs and says to herself afterward, "I haven't heard that one in a while." Writing by Kosuke Mukai deserves credit for many choice minimalist exchanges. However, there is also no strong arc here, or much of an emotional buildup. The filmmakers are content to work on a little piece of ivory, and it's not Jane Austen's -- or Yasujirô Ozu's either. Nonetheless Yamashita, whose previous work has been more sarcastic and dark, has made a little contribution to the contemporary picture of Japanese family life.

    Tamako in Moratorium/Moratorium Tamako, 78 mins., opened theatrically in Japan 23 November 2013 after its Busan debut and was reviewed also showed at Rotterdam and Hong Kong. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Festival (24 April-8 May 2014).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 12:22 AM.

  13. #13
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    HARMONY LESSONS (Emir Baigazin 2013)



    Under a lot of pressure at school

    Emir Baigazin's ironically titled Harmony Lessons is a stark tale of boys exploiting their own at a rural school in Kazakhstan. This first film debuted in competition at the Berlinale and met with acclaim, though it may prove rough viewing for the general audience. The focus is on one boy who is humiliated during medical exams. Some of the boys are like gangsters who extort payment from the others to in turn pay off their upperclassmen "bosses." Some of this is fanciful and dreamlike, and toward the end, the movie increasingly enters the world of the young protagonist's dreams and fantasies. This is a nightmare vision for all those who didn't enjoy their school days. Baigazin is an original talent. The comparisons to Bresson may be misplaced, but Harmony Lessons leaves an impression.

    Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), the protagonist, lives out on a little farm with his grandmother, who works in a butcher shop, and in the cool, procedural opening sequence he catches, kills (in Muslim fashion, but forgetting to say the "bismullah"), skins and disembowels a sheep as his granny stands by. Oddly enough Aslan proves to be a lean, intellectual type, a brilliant boy. "You have great skill, but I don't know what is in your mind," says his beautiful ultra-orthodoz Muslim classmate Akzhan (Anelya Adilbekova), in whom he is plainly interested. His main adversary is the cocky, athletic Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev), the local bully and extortionist who after the physical exam incident orders Aslan's classmates to exclude him from all conersations and greetings. The fly in the ointment for Bolat is Mirsain (Mukhtar Andassov), who's come from the city temporarily while his parents are getting a divorce and who dares to stand up to the bullies and chooses to sit next to Aslan in class. There is also a littler boy who talks to Aslan: he has the misfortune in such a place to possess a shiny white pair of expensive trainers.

    Aslan, excluded, follows his own pursuits, which seem sinister, but also ingenious. Hearing cockroaches carry viruses, he begins catching and electrocuting them. He even devises an insect electric chair. An he cooks up another weapon designed for humans.

    Mirsain has polish and confidence, but in their dark blue suits the boys look alike, and the new environment, this cruel, arbitrary, punitive society, wears Mirsain down. Finally he is left only with his somewhat pathetic dream of an amusement hall called Happylon back home that he has an entrance card for. To him it's a paradise where one is careless and happy and all the girls are pretty and available.

    Meanwhile the hierarchy of bully boys keeps meeting, and their schemes and rules are beyond human understanding; it would be better if Baigazin were a bit less sketchy in his inventions at times; but what is clear is that though Bolat may look down on and humiliate Aslan, there are those older boys who look down on and humiliate him. Obviously things are moving toward retribution and violence. What form this will take and how it will play out with the authorities in the town we would not necessarily predict. Emir Baigazin has a distinctive imagination and he is good at bringing it to life. Baigazin creates his own world, a well-tweaked version of the world he finds at hand. He has made extraordinary use of non-actors, and created an ultra-stripped-down version of a rural classroom. He juggles many details, but they never get in the way of his main effects. Recommended, but not for the squeamish or for vegetarians.

    Harmony Lessons/Uroki garmonii, 104 mins., debuted 14 February 2013 at Berlin, many festivals since. Numerous nominations and prizes in 2014. Besides the directing, the Red camera cinematography of Aziz Zhambakiyev has been frequently mentioned. Theatrical opening 26 March 2014 in France, meeting with critical acclaim (Allociné press rating 3.9 out of 14 publications). Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (24 April-8 May 2014).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-06-2014 at 10:30 AM.

  14. #14
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    MANOS SUCIAS (Josef Wladyka 2014)



    Dire straits

    Polish-American New York first time director Josef Wladyka and his collaborator and co-writer Alan Blanco have forged a vivid, muscular action film about the poor underside of the Colombian cocaine trade in Manos Sucias , a production with the blessing and push of Wladyka's NYU Film School mentor Spike Lee. The film could have more tonal unity and neatness of overall construction. But it makes up for this in the authenticity of its language and locations and the Hemingwayesque deadend machismo of its basic situations. The experience delivered at times approaches the austere desperation of a movie like Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos. And it's also in a strange way a buddy picture and a rich cultural and musical document about black Colombian have-nots located in the heavily narco-trafficked seacoast city of Buenaventura and surrounding area, the drug-run tales' starting-off point and destination. The actors were recruited in Buenaventura and the dialogue was translated from English to Spanish to the local dialect. Above all this is a feat of out-back shooting that rubs your nose equally into the boredom and the danger of running an underwater "narco-torpedo" containing 100kg. of coke hooked up to a fishing boat along a dangerous river course to its drug lord receiver bosses, the kind of stuff novelist Robert Stone might tackle.

    After a somewhat confused intro we're left with leaner, taller, handsomer, sadder, older Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) and his more innocent and cheerful 19-year-old estranged brother Delio (Cristian James Abvincula), plus their older, white trash ostensible boss Miguel (Hadder Blandon). Jacobo is a fisherman with tragedy in his life. It turns out his wife has left him and his cocky young son got killed for standing up to paramilitaries. He apparently wants to make this extra money to move to Bogotà, though Delio warns him there are no blacks there except in servile positions. Strangely, Delio and Jacobo haven't seen each other for years despite living in the same town, so it's news to Jacobo that Delio has a wife and baby now. Immature but cheerful, an aspiring rapper who also wants to set up his little family in better style, Delio smiles all the time. Jacobo can only turn on a smile with an effort sometimes, for example to put investigating coast guard at ease. By the end of this journey both men have aged and seen horror and their faces show it.

    The defining moment in the trip is an argument about soccer heroes on the first evening when Miguel trashes the great Pele with racist epithets, then offers his black cohorts the water bottle, but instead tauntingly finishes the last of it. A law of the frontier or of the jungle begins to prevail. Miguel finds young black kids stealing the drug torpedo next morning and kills one as if for sport and winds up choking Delio. Jacobo finishes off Miguel with the man's own pistol. When he tells the drug boss on the cell phone that Miguel's dead, it seems to be no big deal.

    In contrast perhaps the other most memorable moment comes in stillness, when during longueurs on the boat Jacobo argues with Delio about music, seeing the rap Delio likes as a trashy espousal of sex and killing -- but they join together in a classic song they both know.

    Other scenes are less memorable, but do possess a strong measure of violence and danger and tension. The action highlights surely are a couple of chases back and forth riding quaint motorcycle rigs along an abandoned railway track through the brush as the brothers, with six hours to meet their receivers, frantically struggle to retrieve the drug torpedo again when it's slipped its mooring and been nicked by a kid with a sick grandmother, living in the jungle. Unfortunately, when they get their load to its destination and Delio has gotten his hands as dirty as Jacobo's, it's a bit of a letdown because it lacks the full sense of an ending. Though Wladyka and Blanco have delivered their action, sounds, and feel of the place, with a lot of physically demanding business for the two actors, to perfection, they have not rounded out their narrative as neatly as they might. Maybe next time. They've shown they know how to get their hands dirty anyway. The rough locations could hardly have been more effectively used. Josef Wladyka shows some of the flair and passion for working with indigenous population and exotic environment as did the young Israeli-born director Noaz Deshe in his Tanzanian-shot film about African albinos, White Shadow (also SFIFF).

    Manos Sucias/Dirty Hands, 84 mins., debuted at Cartagena and was shown at Tribeca, April 2014. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 24 Apr.-8 May 2014 (film showing 8 May).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 12:14 AM.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    TANGERINES (Zaza Urushadze 2013)


    It's not about the fruit

    Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines. a quiet antiwar film from Estonia, deals with local war and ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe. A local firefight between Georgians and Chechen fighters leaves three dead and two wounded. So Ivo (veteran actor Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighbor and collaborator on tangerine-marketing Margus (Elmo Nüganen) bury the wounded and hide a wrecked van and care for Chechen mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and more seriously injured Georgian Nika (Mikhail Meskhi), whom Ahmed is bent on killing at first opportunity in retribution for his fallen comrades. Two topics come up, by implication, here: the arbitrariness of war and the disrupting effect of national boundaries. Urushadze achieves what he sets out to do, but there is nothing earth-shaking or deeply moving.

    Of course Ahmed and Nika do not wind up killing each other. To begin with Ivo declares his house a neutral zone, and both men give their word they'll respect it. There is another situation. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when ethnic conflicts broke out, most of the Estonians living as a minority here in 1992 Abkhazia where the action takes place have returned to Estonia, but Ivo is too tied to the place, despite a beautiful granddaughter who grew up in his house, and other relatives. He is a carpenter, and makes boxes. The pretext for remaining now is to produce the crates for Margus' tangerine crop, which needs to be harvested rapidly. They linger for this. But where they are has become too dangerous as Georgian-Chechen fighting comes closer and closer: witness the encounter right outside Margus' house that has led to the wounding of Ahmed and Nika. It becomes gradually clear that this is not time to be harvesting and packing tangerines, highly profitable thought they will be. Margus and Ivo should have left.

    The actors play well together, and Lembit Ulfsak wears his role like a second skin. All the presences are strongly felt, even though Nik and Ahmed seem more gesture than personality. In the end Tangerines is a film of situation rather than event. Despite excellent use of location and handsome soft landscape images (the subtle work of dp Rein Kotov), this feels like a play. It might even work better as a play, where each line of dialogue would get maximum attention. There is no harm in another antiwar film, but this one is hardly earthshaking.

    Tangerines/Mandariinid, 87 mins., debuted at Warsaw where it won a jury prize and directing prize, continuing at some other festivals. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2014.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2014 at 12:12 AM.

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