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    SFIFF 2013

    By | April 23, 2013


    The 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival (April 25 – May 9) will feature 158 films, representing 51 countries. Among the films are 67 narrative features, 63 shorts, and 28 documentaries; including films by 25 female directors. Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew (starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Alexander Skarsgård) will open the festival. Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality For All (featuring local economist Robert Reich) will be featured as the Centerpiece screening, and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (the third film in the director’s acclaimed romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) will close the festival.

    Smells Like Screen Spirit has gotten a jump-start on SFIFF 2013 to prepare you with a preview of the films we have seen so far:



    Directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson
    After the cold-blooded execution of the titular Dr. George Tiller in 2009 only a handful of doctors were qualified to perform third-term abortions. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller follows the four remaining doctors in America who continue to perform late-term abortions despite being vilified as high priority targets of the pro-life movement. Dr. Susan Robinson, Dr. Shelley Sella, Dr. LeRoy Carhart and Dr. Warren Hern risk their lives every single day, canonizing them as heroes to certain segments of the pro-choice movement. Every day at work these doctors must dive head-first into a morally grey quagmire as the gatekeepers for these questionable-yet-Constitutionally-permitted services. While being labeled as baby murderers by the right, these four doctors continue to do their jobs in order to provide women with the ability to maintain control over their own bodies — because, well, somebody has to do it. After Tiller will probably not convince anyone from the pro-life movement to switch teams, but it does succeed in portraying the tough ethical decisions that these doctors must face on a daily basis. Shane and Wilson also convey the psychological hardship of having to live in a constant state of fear just because certain people believe that it is their god-appointed duty to save unborn fetuses/babies; they might even be willing to kill these four doctors in order to do just that.




    Director: PJ Raval
    PJ Raval’s observational documentary Before You Know It immerses itself into the lives of three gay men who are navigating their golden years. These three men have wrestled with their sexual identity at different stages of their lives, now they must also face the facts of an aging life. For whatever reason, it is believed that the LGBT community never ages; once they pass a certain age, they just seem to disappear from society’s consciousness. Because of this, the seniors of the LGBT community are lacking in a reliable support structure. It also does not help that for a majority of their lives, same-sex relationships have not been recognized by the federal and state governments as legally-binding. So, I guess its not very surprising statistic that such a high rate of LGBT seniors live alone. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Before You Know It from SXSW 2013.)




    Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
    Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary is enough to turn anyone against Sea World, as she provides undeniable evidence of their long history of negligence and cover-ups. Cowperthwaite does not approach this subject, however, from the perspective of an animal rights activist. She is not necessarily looking to “Free Willy!” (or “Free Tilikum!”) — though that would not necessarily be an unwanted aftereffect either — instead Cowperthwaite seeks to prove that Sea World was at fault for the many injuries of trainers by killer whales. From stressful living environments to the abusive pasts of the whales are presented as evidence as Sea World knowingly and repeatedly put their trainers in harm’s way, then blamed the trainers if they got injured or killed by the whales. That is what really gets Cowperthwaite’s goat — that Sea World has repeatedly blamed the victims in order to save their multi-billion dollar skin. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of Blackfish from True/False 2013.)



    Director: Andrew Bujalski
    Writer: Andrew Bujalski
    Starring: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Kevin Bewersdorf, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Cole Noppenberg, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry, Bob Sabiston
    Andrew Bukalski’s Computer Chess is exactly what I would imagine an immersive documentary about computer chess programmers circa 1980 to look like. Modeled loosely as a first person — dare I say “found footage” — narrative, Bujalski’s film documents a computer chess tournament a few years before computers are expected to conquer humans…at least within the realm of the 64 squares of the chess board. As if these programmers learned nothing from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Battlestar Galactica, they teach their respective team’s computer to play a board game that was developed centuries ago by humans, for humans. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of Computer Chess from True/False 2013.)




    Director: Zal Batmanglij
    Writers: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
    Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Jamey Sheridan, Pamela Roylance
    I will gladly admit that Sound of My Voice and The East are both technically sound films. The cinematography, editing and acting are all damn near perfect. The performances (especially Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgård) are top notch; and, yes, this is a great looking film. The plot just feels way too slight and pandering, in my humbly politicized opinion. Sure, The East sheds some light upon some real environmental catastrophes, but it also just writes them off as some left-wing-nut conspiracy theories. (Check out our 6 out of 10 review of The East from SXSW 2013.)



    Director: Rama Burshtein
    Writer: Rama Burshtein
    Starring: Hadas Yaron, Irit Sheleg, Yiftach Klein, Renana Raz, Yael Tal, Ido Samuel, Hila Feldman, Razia Israeli, Chayim Sharir
    Now that Shira (Hadas Yaron) is 18-years old, her family is ready to marry her off; but then tragedy steps in to fatefully postpone her engagement. Shira ends up taking care of her newborn nephew, who might be getting taken away to Belgium by her brother-in-law. Shira’s mother is adamantly opposed to having her son-in-law take her grandson to Belgium, and she can think of only one way to stop him. Someone must fill the titular void left by her older daughter. Unfortunately for Shira, that plan involves an arranged marriage between her and her older brother-in-law. (Check out our 7 out of 10 review of Fill the Void from Sundance 2013.)



    Director: Alicia Scherson
    Writers: Alicia Scherson (screenplay), Roberto Bolaño (novel, Una novelita lumpen)
    Starring: Luigi Ciardo, Manuela Martelli, Rutger Hauer, Nicolas Vaporidis, Alessandro Giallocosta
    Il Futuro had me at the opening homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with a yellow Fiat taking the place of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle. As it turns out, that Fiat is the very vessel in which Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas’ (Luigi Ciardo) parents die, leaving Bianca and Tomas to manage their home in Rome. Bianca is old enough to become Tomas’ guardian and they are able to get money from their father’s trust while their mother’s funds are inexplicably tied up. Bianca is still forced to find a job to supplement the trust funds and Tomas willingly volunteers at the gym in exchange for being able to work out there. It is at the gym that Tomas meets two strange friends (Nicolas Vaporidis, Alessandro Giallocosta). Soon Bianca and Tomas are entwined in a risky scheme that involves a former Mr. Universe-cum-actor who goes by the name of his most famous character, Maciste (Rutger Hauer). (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Il Futuro from Sundance 2013.)



    Director: Dan Krauss
    In early 2010, a group of U.S. soldiers stationed in southern Afghanistan began a calculated killing spree of innocent civilians at the bullied urging of their platoon sergeant, cleverly staging the scenes to legitimize the senseless murders by planting weapons on their victims. The “Kill Team” soldiers are bored to death, but also scared for their lives. These premeditated murders are a way to pass the time. In a military culture in which killing the enemy is a measure of productivity that is perceived as the penultimate achievement, this squad’s itchy trigger fingers garner them awards for their heroic deeds. Director Dan Krauss conveys this embarrassing tale via firsthand accounts from four of the implicated soldiers. While the soldiers discuss their perspectives of the accounts with incredible frankness and insight, Krauss is also able to reveal some astonishing visual evidence that is being used against them. We might expect a lot of lies and coercion, but all of the cards are laid on the table. The soldiers acknowledge the horrendous acts that they participated in, as well as the hefty psychological impacts of those decisions, but the question remains: Who is truly at fault? (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of The Kill Team from Tribeca 2013.)



    Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
    Writer: Chris Galletta
    Starring: Nick Robinson, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Megan Mullally, Craig Cackowski, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Alison Brie, Eugene Cordero
    Not all that long ago, kids used to fantasize about running away from home and living in the wilderness. It was certainly not uncommon for kids to build a fort or treehouse as a home away from their nagging parents. For many kids this was a rite of passage, a dipping of their toes into the pool of [perceived] absolute freedom. Nowadays parents are much too paranoid about pedophiles and serial killers to allow their kids to enjoy any such expression of independence, while kids are much too obsessed with videogames and social media to care about the outdoors. In this modern world, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer plays like an inconceivable fairytale. The concept seems so unbelievably absurd that three high school boys would grow so sick of their parents that they would construct a house in a presumably vast forest that just so happens to be located somewhere in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Considering that the de facto leader — Joe (Nick Robertson) — can barely build a birdhouse, this scheme becomes all that more unfathomable. Joined by his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and an eerily strange hanger-on Biaggio (Moises Arias), Joe may be able to orchestrate the construction of a livable structure; but the boys are unable to enjoy a sustainable diet without secretly relying upon a nearby Boston Market.




    Director: Jason Osder
    Years of violent confrontations between MOVE and the police finally culminated on May 13, 1985, and even though a few local news affiliates were recording everything live, the information available to the public after the fact seemed to be inherently biased. This is where Jason Osder’s documentary, Let the Fire Burn, comes in. Twenty-eight years after Philadelphia became known as “The City that Bombed Itself,” Osder premiered an artfully-edited archival footage documentary about MOVE at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Assembled primarily from news footage and video recordings collected by an mayor-appointed investigative commission, Let the Fire Burn avoids any heavy-handed narration or directorial voice; instead, Osder presents the audience with a riveting 88-minutes of firsthand documentation and allows us to come to our own conclusions. Regardless, it is difficult to avoid the obvious roles that prejudice, intolerance and fear played in the decisions made by Mayor Goode and the Philadelphia Police force on May 13, 1985. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Let the Fire Burn from Tribeca 2013.)



    Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
    A profoundly mind-altering cinematic essay on the commercial fishing industry, Leviathan begins with a passage from the Book of Job. That right there is a clear sign that directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel will be feasting upon the existential struggle of man versus nature and man against god, as the crew of this particular fishing vessel constantly risks life and limb, working in the treacherous waters off the coast of Massachusetts. For some, Leviathan might be sensory overload — there will almost certainly be audience members who experience seasickness while seated in the movie theater — but as far as I am concerned, Leviathan works best in a movie theater in which the audience can become fully immersed in the sights and sounds. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Leviathan from AFI 2012.)



    Director: Joss Whedon
    Writers: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare
    Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Emma Bates, Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sara Blindauer, Spencer Treat Clark, Anna Grimm, Ashley Johnson, Nick Kocher, Tom Lenk, Riki Lindhome, Sean Maher, Brian McElhaney, Paul M. Meston
    Significantly different in tone and setting to Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation, Joss Whedon’s film is just as flawless of an interpretation. It seems fitting that Whedon, a writer-director who has long had an affinity for strong-willed women, would be attracted to Beatrice’s character. This sharp-tongued female character-type is one that appears in every part of the Whedonverse — several of those characters have been played by Amy Acker. In fact, the Benedick and Beatrice scenario of two people who are too stubborn and proud to admit their love for each other has been quite prevalent in most of Whedon’s stories as well. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of Much Ado About Nothing from SXSW 2013 as well as our video interview with Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion.)



    Director: Mike Ott
    Writers: Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka
    Starring: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, John Brotherton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mio Takada, Sumiko Muto
    Like Littlerock, writer-director Mike Ott’s previous film, Pearblossum Hwy focuses on twentysomethings who are unwillingly stuck living in a secluded California desert town. Economic limitations weigh heavily upon their situations because without decent employment opportunities they cannot afford to move elsewhere. Besides, no matter how much they hate it, this is where their only family roots are grounded… At this point, I think Ott is one the most fascinating young American filmmakers. He has a simple, yet unique approach to filmmaking that hinges heavily upon the tenants of neo-realism and non-fiction filmmaking. Pearblossum Hwy echoes many of the same sentiments as Littlerock, but that is not such a bad thing. Ott simplifies and streamlines what he did with Littlerock, creating a new film that is both more mature and meaningful. Ott is clearly still growing as a filmmaker, but I sense that he has truly hit his stride with Pearblossom Hwy. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of Pearblossum Hwy from AFI 2012.)



    Director: Oliver Assayas
    Writer: Oliver Assayas
    Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Salvor Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Mathias Renou, Léa Rougeron
    Utilizing Gilles as his teenage avatar, writer-director Oliver Assayas injects his own personal history into the post-May ’68 narrative. As Gilles and his comrades struggle to define themselves as artists and political activists, they simultaneously try to find fulfilling ways to merge their two interests. This, of course, prompts them to question the legitimacy of art as a mechanism to express their political voices. Are some forms of art more effective in political activism than others? Should political art be plain and simple for the consumption of the proletariat or should it break from conventional modes and forms, thus destined only to be understood by the bourgeoisie? First and foremost is the question of continuance and survival. As they learn that political activism does not allow them to cover their cost of living, they must either rely on the support of others (thus conforming to the ideals of that group) or find other ways to generate income. Like Sartrean characters, they must juggle this with the concept of personal freedom, wanting to pursue their dreams and convictions but also needing to survive in the capitalist world. For the young women, their warped notions of activism are quickly shattered by the inherent machismo attitude of the male leaders. They are relegated to shopping, cooking and secretarial work, while the men sit around, philosophizing and debating. This is not the life any of these teens dreamed of while in high school, where everyone was considered equal as long as they were against the status quo. As they rapidly come of age, they learn that there are no easy answers, just a lot of compromises.



    Director: James Ponsoldt
    Writers: Michael H. Weber (screenplay), Scott Neustadter (screenplay), Tim Tharp (novel)
    Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, Dayo Okeniyi, Masam Holden, Gary Weeks
    Sutter (Miles Teller) is the token “fun guy” of his high school senior class. Whether or not it is his perpetual alcohol-fueled buzz that makes him that way depends on who you ask; but considering that it has been a while since Sutter has been sober, it might be difficult to find someone who can actually speak to that. The problem is there is only so far that being the “fun guy” can get you; even his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is ready to move on and find someone whose future spans further than his next swig. It is the incredibly powerful final act that really puts the “wow!” into The Spectacular Now. This is a story that could go a million different ways, but this film’s conclusion abides by the same surprisingly high level of realism that commands the rest of the film. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of The Spectacular Now from Sundance 2013.)



    Director: Sarah Polley
    Sarah Polley approaches Stories We Tell knowing full well that stories are just that: stories. She gathers her family in front of her camera to compare their recollections of their mother. Polley’s familiar past quickly becomes an open book, the ultimate family drama. Do we learn too much? What and who can we believe? Polley cleverly toys with the notion of utilizing archival footage to heighten our sense of reality, thus playing a few tricks of her own, as if to say: the wool was pulled over my own eyes for so long, so I want you to experience the same sense of confused shock. It is a brilliant facade of reality that Polley creates, one that will leave its audiences’ heads spinning. We are left questioning the entire content of the film, though at the heart of all, there is more god’s honest truth to this film than most non-fiction films. (Check out our 9 out of 10 review of Stories We Tell from True/False 2013.)



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