By Don Simpson | April 25, 2014
The 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival (April 24 – May 8) will feature 168 films, representing 56 countries. Among the films are 74 narrative features, 65 shorts, and 29 documentaries; including films by 45 female directors. SFIFF57 kicked off last night with the Opening Night presentation of Hossein Amini’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January starring Oscar Issac, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst. The SFIFF57 Centerpiece film is Palo Alto, directed by Gia Coppola and based on the collection of short stories by James Franco (Coppola is expected to attend the screening and the Centerpiece Party that follows). The Festival will then conclude on May 8th with Chris Messina’s drama Alex of Venice, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Messina and Don Johnson.
Smells Like Screen Spirit has gotten a bit of a jump-start on SFIFF57 to prepare you with a preview of the films we have seen so far:
Following one boy’s life as he grows from boy to young man, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is filmed in bits and pieces from 2002 to 2012. There is no movie coming out in 2014 that we’ve been anticipating more than this one, and the trailer only ups the ante for us. Few writer-directors working today capture the mundane beauty of modern life better than Linklater. His movies are often filled with “real” people talking about everyday issues (growing up, the difficulties of a relationship, living in a small East Texas town), and are usually presented via experimental film techniques that are easy to take for granted. Whether it’s using actual Carthage, Texas residents and creating a fictional narrative/documentary hybrid in Bernie, using rotoscope animation in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, making a trilogy of movies in which actors Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy, and writer-director workshop the story together, or filming a movie in which you follow the same actor from age 6 to 16, Richard Linklater is one of our most interesting filmmakers working today.
Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same title, Richard Ayoade’s The Double channels the moody dystopian worlds of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen. Ayoade relies quite heavily upon a highly imaginative visual aesthetic to establish the bleak and foreboding tone of the story. Shot solely from Simon’s perspective, the cinematography is purposefully chaotic and off-kilter, cleverly representing his rapidly deteriorating psyche. With obvious cinematic reference points such as Brazil, Delicatessen, Fight Club and Rear Window, Ayoade repeatedly turns to film history to help further inform the narrative. Yet, none of what he borrows from the cinematic past is blatant enough to constitute stealing, instead Ayoade builds his own stylistic brand of cinema, tying everything together with a uniquely droll style of absurdism.
By adapting her short film into this feature length production, the most noticeable alteration made by writer-director Kat Candler is in the character of the father. The feature allows Candler to create a father that is more well-rounded, someone with whom the audience can truly sympathize. In Aaron Paul’s hands, Hollis is given the emotional depth and empathy that this character deserves.
Shot in the hazy sunshine of the Gulf Coast, Hellion captures the difficulties of a single, working class parent, carefully examining the effects that local economics can have on families. The gritty, handheld cinematography (Brett Pawlak) hearkens back to the glory days of 1970s American independent cinema while also reflecting the working class livelihoods of this East Texas community. The visuals are accented by a much more modern heavy metal soundtrack that vocalizes Jacob’s pent up anger and hormonal rage.
An infinitely profound examination of the faith versus science debate, writer-director Mike Cahill wraps his heady existential diatribe around the adage that the eye is the window to the soul, specifically utilizing the presumed uniqueness of an individual’s iris patterns in this contemplation of god’s existence. Being that eyes are directly connected to the human brain, and the brain retains memories, I Origins suggests the possibility that if two people (one living, one dead) share identical iris patterns that they may also share memories, possibly even the same soul (thus proving reincarnation). Whether or not this is sound science is up to the molecular scientists in the audience to decide, but Cahill’s entertainingly thoughtful hypothesis is sure to incite a chain reaction of theological contemplation among even the most ardent non-believers.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Unlike Fargo, this tale is actually based on a true story, so you may already know Kumiko’s fate; but told from Kumiko’s somewhat warped perspective, hope is never quite lost. Kumiko’s confidence is unwavering, as she is perpetually driven to find the treasure. The creators of this fantastical adventure, the Zellner Brothers, seem to really appreciate Kumiko’s perseverance; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter presents her like a heroine from a fairytale. Masterfully lensed by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love, Eden), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter functions quite purposefully as two distinct halves, both of which are closely tied to Japanese cinematic history. While Kumiko is in Japan, Porter captures the suffocating claustrophobia and urban grittiness of modern Tokyo; once Kumiko arrives in Minnesota, Porter transforms the snow-covered expanses into a surreal staging ground for the epic journey. The artfulness of Porter’s cinematography, the eerily pitch-perfect score by The Octopus Project and Rinko Kikuchi’s astoundingly stoic performance all contribute to the remarkable maturity of this Zellner Brothers endeavor. By far their most accomplished and coherent film (a statement intended by no means to discredit their previous work), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seems as if it was made by a Japanese master rather than two brothers from Austin, Texas with a penchant for absurdity.
No No: A Dockumentary
Odds are that if you’re not a baseball fan, the name Dock Ellis won’t mean much to you. Hell, even if you are a baseball fan, the name might not mean that much to you. Despite winning a World Series and compiling a solid 138-119 record to go along with a 3.46 ERA, Ellis was a really good pitcher, not a great pitcher. His playing days came to an end in 1979, he received only one vote on the 1985 Hall of Fame ballot and he died in 2008. The truth of the matter is that Ellis is best known for a 1970 no-hitter that he threw, he later revealed, under the influence of LSD. Jeff Radice’s lovingly crafted documentary, No No: A Dockumentary, wisely uses that folkloric event as both a potent draw and as a jumping off point to illustrate that there was much more to the man’s life and career.
Anchored by a breakout performance from Jenny Slate, Obvious Child is a well-paced comedy packed with a steady stream of hilarious jokes, yet the film also carries a strong and unwavering opinion on its subject matter. While the subject of this film may chase some potential audiences away, writer-director Gillian Robespierre does such an admirable job of presenting a convincing perspective that it could actually change some minds if audiences would just give it a fighting chance.
Of Horses and Men
An Icelandic saga of sorts, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men is structured as a series of loosely intertwining parables about horses and the rural community whose lives revolve around them. These stories seem like they probably might have possessed some greater moral purpose at one time, but the points have since worn away with the passage of time; the tall tales have grown so exaggerated and romanticized, they hardly seem to be rooted in truth at this point. But I don’t know, maybe a rider really has found themselves practically sandwiched between a horny stallion and a mare in heat and lived to tell the embarrassing story, regardless it certainly makes for entertaining cinema. Equally absurd is a drunkard who rides a horse out to sea to purchase two jugs of a potent elixir from a passing ship, or a novice rider who is forced to recreate the Luke Skywalker tauntaun scene in order to survive a frigid night. While each vignette of this visually poetic film seems like it could be a part of a grand absurdist farce, the tone is so subtle that the comedy quickly mutates into stoic seriousness, especially when told against the dramatic natural environments of Iceland that are captured with such astoundingly magnificent cinematography (Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson).
The One I Love
Even though The One I Love is nicely set up as a romantic comedy, it is armed with an alarmingly intense and disconcerting air that hovers on the brink of mutating into a horror film. The dramatically sharp turns are deftly orchestrated, never giving away too much information at any one time. Seamlessly blending reality with imagination, even the most absurd qualities of the narrative are portrayed so subtly that they it feels unnervingly authentic. This high concept narrative takes its audience on a rapidly-paced and perplexing journey that is sure to make some heads spin, but it is totally worth the wackadoodle trip.
Ping Pong Summer
As Ping Pong Summer borrows faithfully from the oh-so-cheesy, coming-of-age films of the 1980s, writer-director Michael Tully reveals an unabashed fondness for the genre’s formulaic conventions and standard touchstones. For example: the underprivileged protagonist falls in love with the trophy girl but must compete (against all odds, of course) with the bourgeois bully to win the girl; all the while, the protagonist’s geeky comedic relief sidekick provides a bunch of laughs. Tully even presents us with an eccentric beer-swilling coach (Susan Sarandon) who teaches Rad how to really play ping-pong, though she is also teaching him about self-confidence and the art of defusing bullies by mentally blocking out their noise, because there has to be a moral to every story. By presenting these conventions and tropes so blatantly, it is as if Tully is asking the audience to reexamine these narrative devices culled from 1980s cinema via our own modern perspective. In retrospect, the plot may seem just as ridiculous as the graphics of vintage arcade games, cassette-deck boom boxes, parachute pants and Pixy Stix; or, the narrative structure may conjure up the very same charmingly nostalgic memories as the 1980s production design. For better or worse, Ping Pong Summer is precisely what my generation believes a coming-of-age story should be.
The Trip to Italy
Michael Winterbottom obviously recognized the sheer comedic majesty of pairing up Steve Coogan with Rob Brydon while shooting his BBC television series The Trip (which was later released in the United States as a feature film), but who knows what could have possibly prompted him to make a sequel. Just like Coogan and Brydon’s characters in The Trip to Italy, Winterbottom seems to have agreed to shoot this film for the free trip to Italy and an easy paycheck. While there is no denying Coogan and Brydon’s comedic chemistry; their impersonations are humorous (especially their elongated bit about The Dark Knight Rises and Tom Hardy), that alone cannot carry an entire narrative. There are very few instances that a comedic sequel is as good as the original, and The Trip to Italy falls prey to that very curse. Perhaps this is all part of Winterbottom’s charade, an attempt to illustrate the inherently repetitive and banal nature of comedic sequels?
We Are the Best!
We Are the Best! is certainly one of the most honest portrayals of adolescent punk culture that I have ever seen. Adapted from writer-director Lukas Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Never Goodnight, We Are the Best! perfectly captures the angsty adolescent desire for self-expression and individuality. Not unfamiliar with telling stories from a female vantage point (Show Me Love, Lilya 4-Ever), Moodysson is able to maintain the unique perspective of the graphic novel. Moodysson seems to truly understand the underlying bonds between Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), while skillfully refraining from over-dramatizing their relationship. Other than some venomous insults from the peanut gallery, their tomboyish style is not a stereotypical reflection of their sexuality. Bobo, Klara and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) never seem to question their gender; instead, it is their unwavering confidence in themselves that allows them to proudly not adhere to the conformist notion of beauty. Moodysson also allows the girls to wear their adolescent naiveté like a badge of honor, perhaps recognizing that it was a similar naiveté that produced such great female punk bands as The Raincoats, The Slits and LiLiPUT/Kleenex.
Young & Beautiful
Writer-director François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful intimately observes Isabelle during the four seasons of the seventeenth year of her life, separating each season into a distinct chapter featuring a song by Françoise Hardy — “The Love Of A Boy,” “When Even Try?,” “First Encounter,” and “I Am Me.” Ozon focuses the eerily nonchalant attitude of a modern teenager, echoing the sentiments of Rimbaud’s poem “No-One’s Serious at Seventeen” as Isabelle does not take any of her decisions or actions seriously. Showcasing the modern day breakdown of relationships, Isabelle seems totally disconnected from the world around her, mindlessly drifting from home to school to random hotel rooms and back home again. It is as if Isabelle is stuck in a sort of teenage limbo, anxious to escape into adulthood.