Friday, May 16, 2014

SFIFF roundup

Past round-ups here: 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Well, it turns out that attempting the film fest after 3 months of covering 2 positions at work was not my BEST idea. I've just been exhausted forever at this point, and I had to miss some things at the fest just to try to rest a bit (more on that in a bit). So. The feature films (shorts to follow), from excellent to not my thing. (And I've tried to weed out spoilery trailers, but one of my favorite parts of the fest is going into films mostly blind, without too much prior knowledge or marketing to sway my expectations. So watch judiciously.):

Definitely see:
Tracks - Granted, this is a movie that is designed to hit all of my interests: a woman traveling solo, gorgeous landscape cinematography, one of my favorite actresses, animals, and Australia. I ran into a coworker after she saw the first screening and she was completely overcome. It is just wonderful. I can't wait to watch it again. criticWire: B+. The Weinstein Company has it - TWC says release September 19, but indieWire says May 23. Trailer here!
"To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks" - Robyn Davidson

Hellion - Just unbelievably fantastic. In his introduction, Noah Cowan said he thought it likely had some of the best dramatic performances of the year, and he was right. I wasn't sure I'd buy Aaron Paul as a father, and he just killed it. So good. So well done. Must see. criticWire: B. Sundance Selects picked it up, and it will be out in the fall. (Although, hmm. BOM says IFC has the rights and a release date of June 13th.) Trailer here.

Calvary - A wonderful collection of Irish actors and a great, expansive, difficult story. Much as I enjoyed the Guard, I didn't think the writing of John Michael McDonagh *quite* lived up to the plays of his brother Martin. This one certainly does. It's an interesting spin on a mystery, and Gleeson's performance is brilliant. criticWire: B+. There's a trailer now! It'll be out August 1 - Fox Searchlight, I think.

Night Moves - I was so excited to hear that Kelly Reichardt was doing a film on eco-terrorism, and one that included Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsaard. However, I thought it would be somewhat languid; more of the creeping dread of Meek's Cutoff. I was so wrong - it is absolutely edge of your seat, white-knuckled suspense. The last time I recall being that wound up by a film was The Hurt Locker. And aside from the thrill of it all, it ended up being a really nuanced and complex look at the ripple effects of violence on people. criticWire: B. Release date: May 30th, Cinedigm. Trailer here!

Highly Recommended:
We Are the Best - This is completely delightful. It follows three 13 year olds who love punk. It captures their age really well, without being as dark as Thirteen, and the performances are really captivating and genuine. critcWire: B+. Release date: May 30th. Trailer here!

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter - a beautiful, tragic film based on the urban legend of a Janese office worker traveling to Fargo to search for the treasure Steve Buscemi hides in the film. Rinko Kikuchi is such a brilliant actress, and she gives a very different performance here than what I've seen from her before. criticWire: A-. No distribution yet that I can see.

The Double - Based on the novella by Dostoyevsky and directed by Richard Ayoade. The tone and style are very different than Submarine, although most of that cast pops up in cameos. There are some obvious parallels to Brazil, but I actually liked this film much better and I was really impressed by the strength of Ayoade's stylish, dystopian vision. criticWire: B+. Current limited release (Magnolia). Trailer here!

I Origins - I happened to be in the minority that really enjoyed Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's Another Earth, so I was excited to see them re-team. This time, Michael Pitt is the lead (which was a head trip to watch in between bouts of Hannibal), but the film still plays out philosophical consequences of a scientific phenomena. I wouldn't have categorized either film as science fiction, but that's really what they are, in the best form of that genre. criticWire: A-. Fox Searchlight releasing July 18th. There is a trailer, but it gives too much away. Just go see it without the trailer.

Dear White People - A film about racial tensions at a private college. I think I had heard too many raves about this coming out of Sundance and had my expectations too high. However, I thought the cast was quite good, particularly the lead Tessa Thompson. criticWire: B+. Lionsgate and Roadside distributing; I don't see a date yet.

The Overnighters - A really powerful documentary about the American cycle of boomtowns and the meaning of charity, focusing on a controversial pastor in North Dakota's oil boom. criticWire: A-. Drafthouse releasing November 7th.

Maybe see - depends on what you're into:
Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii)- an interesting character study about bullying from Kazakhstan. Like many first films, it's a little too long. The setting and acting was really interesting, and it did have nice cinematography. criticWire: A-. No distribution I see.

Words and Pictures - This was the member's mystery screening - the story of an English teacher and Art teacher who battle it out at a private high school. Romcoms really aren't my thing, but Clive Owen was certainly charming and it was better than most I've seen. criticWire: B+. Roadside Attractions, release May 23rd.

Skip (unless you have a particular pull):
20,000 Days on Earth - This was an occasionally interesting biopic of Nick Cave. I happen to have been listening to a lot of Nick Cave recently, as I am watching the first season of Peaky Blinders, which uses mostly his music for the soundtrack. I think he's an interesting personality and I've enjoyed his work on the Proposition and the Assassination of Jesse James. That said, I'm not a huge fan. I don't know his catalog extensively and I don't know much about him as a person. The film is technically well made - it won directing and editing awards at Sundance, but I found the style and the way they chose to frame the narrative frequently more interesting that the subject himself. Which is odd, for such a character. But I did find myself bored at times. However, I think die-hard Cave fans will adore it. criticWire: A-. Drafthouse picked up. No release date yet.

Frank - Michael Fassbender does give a pretty amazing physical performance as the lead singer of an experimental art band who always wears a giant paper mache head. However, the lead of the film is actually Domhnall Gleeson, and both he and the rest of the characters (including Maggie Gyllenhaal) are pretty unlikeable. Magnolia releasing August 22nd. criticWire: A-.

The Sacrament - I wasn't a big fan of You're Next either, so perhaps the Mumblegore genre isn't for me. Still I've been meaning to see House of the Devil, Cheap Thrills and A Horrible Way to Die, so maybe I won't write off the whole genre just yet. (Well, and at least one blog lumped Martha Marcy Mae Marlene into that category, which I did really enjoy.) However this film, about a Vice documentary crew's trip to a Jonestown-like cult never really did much for me. There were a couple of good shots and sequences, but the script was really weak ("hey. There's Caroline. I wonder where she's going." Thank you, I can see her.) Amy Seimetz felt pretty wasted in her role as a cult convert and, quite honestly, the mass suicide, while touching at moments, should have been a lot more horrifying. The editing and found footage style just undercut the tragedy of it. Magnolia, release date June 6th.

Tip Top - It was probably a bad idea to try to see this right after Hellion, but the schizophrenic tonal shifts just irritated, rather than entertained, me. It's supposed to be a slap-stick procedural mash-up, so... see it if that sounds interesting to you. I still enjoy Isabelle Huppert either way. criticWire: B+. Kino Lober picked up the rights in Feb. No release date I can see.

The Special Screenings
The Unknown - Lon Chaney gives an astounding performance as an armless carnival knife-thrower, in love with Joan Crawford. It is really one of the most amazing performances I've seen, and it is nice to see such early work from Joan Crawford as well. This was a special showing with Stephin Merritt providing a new score, in this case on the ukelele, with some additional accompaniment by Daniel Handler on accordion. The score had some nice moments, but overall it wasn't as impressive as some of the other scores I've seen at the Castro. Available for rental at Amazon.

The Lady Eve - A Preston Sturgess screwball comedy. It was charming, and I enjoyed the performances by both Barbara Stanwyck (who can be hit and miss for me) and Henry Fonda (in a very different type of role for him). Still, I prefer It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. That said, this was the choice of David Thomson who, among other books, wrote the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, which has a new edition out. (In 2010, it topped the Sight & Sound poll of the best film book of all time.) I picked up an inscribed (!) copy, and I've really been enjoying flipping through it, even if I don't always enjoy with his assessments of some actors.*  Available for DVD rental at Netflix.

Reversal of Fortune - I liked this alright. It came off as a bit dated, particularly Glenn Close's narration. It's a good performance on Jeremy Iron's part and I liked the way the legal case built (although it wasn't too different than many legal tv shows). I do wonder what it would have been like to see it at the time; I was totally unfamiliar with the case it is based on. Available on DVD and digital rental.

All That Jazz - So wonderful - I just adore Fosse; he was so incredibly brilliant. Cabaret is one of my all time favorite films, if not my favorite. Roy Scheider is brilliant as Fosse's alter-ego, and the dance sequences are just wonderful. And hey! indieWire named it one of the 15 best Palme d'Or winners (although, really - how do you pick?). Criterion is releasing it in August. (Here, have links to Bye, Bye Blackbird from Liza with a Z, Ann Reinking in All That Jazz, and the Chicago Tony performances old and new.)

* I do love Thomson's entry on Buster Keaton; "It is well known that Keaton performed personally in scenes that involved considerable risk. In Our Hospitality there is the waterfall sequence, while in Sherlock Jr. Keaton had a fall that, years later, it was discovered, had broken his neck. Such physical peril did not make him a slapstick artist. On the contrary, his reactions when threatened were untheatrical and near mystical in his haughty recognition of a malign fate and the deadpan that might honorably confront it.
That is what strikes us today as the most admirable thing about Keaton: the serene capacity for absorbing frustration and turning a blind eye to fear and failure. If Chaplin's films are always working toward self-centered pathos, Keaton never disguises the element of absurdity in a lone romantic's dealings with the world."

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