San Francisco International Film Festival 56: Four Fun Features!

Staff BadgeA film festivals is like a river.  Where you “ford” the river; where you step into the stream, is unique.  Your experience of the same events will often differ drastically from everyone around you.

Are you anticipating a film because you’re familiar with the director’s previous work?  Do you adore the lead actor and are you excited to spend some quality time in their presence?  Did you have to stand in the cold in a long line before you were admitted into the theater or was it nearly impossible to find parking? All of these personal concerns and anticipations will color your view.

For me, having worked in this field for so long, film festivals are almost like coming home.  I know the staff, I’ve worked the venues, and I love the thrill of seeing a film with filmmakers present!  My film-going experience is bound to be a positive one.  This year at SFIFF 56, I worked more than usual, both at the theaters and away from them.  So I had very limited opportunities to actually watch films.  Fortunately, the four features I did manage to see, were all very good.

“What Maisie Knew” — Divorce, Hollywood-style

SFIFF opened with this tale of self-centered parents battling for their child’s affections.  Based on a short story by Henry James penned 100 years ago, the damage inflicted by neglect is brought to life by the marvelous performance of the young lead, Onata Aprile.  As the pawn fought over by Julianne Moore’s aging rock star mother and the traveling philandering father, played by Steve Coogan, Onata is refreshingly open in her natural reactions.  Her joy at spending time with the actors who play her surrogate parents is a delight.  Alexander Skarsgard elevates every scene he’s in as the party boy who becomes the affectionate companion.  The story stretches credability and reason at points, (even wealthy people can’t get away with this level of neglect) and the ending is pure fairytale but there’s a level of charm here that’s hard to deny.  Rating: 3 glasses of expensive red wine

“Cutie and the Boxer” — Eccentric and Wonderful

Zachary Heinzerling’s directorial debut is the winning documentary about an eccentric painter and sculptor, Ushio Shinohara and his supportive wife and fellow artist, Noriko Shinohara.  This intimate portrait of two talented Japanese artists struggling to find an audience (and buyers!) for their creations: towering papier mache motorcycles, paintings created by “boxing” the canvas and graphic novels depicting their own troubled relationship, is both tender and finely-crafted.  Rating: 3 shots of sake

“Byzantium”–Irish Goth with some serious teeth

In one week, I found myself viewing two vampire films!  Both closer in spirit to “The Hunger” or “Let The Right One In” than “Buffy” or “Twilight”; “Kiss of the Damned” is a campy affair by a first-time filmmaker but “Byzantium” is a classy, Gothic drama helmed by Neil Jordan.  Outstanding performances by the female leads, the beautiful and very sexy, Gemma Arterton and the other-worldly, wiser-than-her-years, Saoirse Ronan bring this British Turn of the Century vampire tale to life.

Period costumes, a unique creation story and the always excellent, Sam Riley, add to this dark story of teen angst.  What to do when your mother turns your home into a house of ill repute  to support you?  When your boyfriend already looks like a vampire (Caleb Landry Jones) but your writing teacher suspects that your creative writing assignment might cut too close to the truth?  Rating: 4 glasses of red, red wine

“Ernest et Celestine”–Can a Bear and a Mouse be friends?

This delightful French 2-D animation has lovely water-color painted backdrops and a sweet story of two unlikely friends trying to survive in a world where creatures  keep to their own kind.  A small misstep in an over-long central bit spent in the mouse dental office but the drawings are so charming that it’s easily forgiven.  One of my favorite films of the festival, “Ernest et Celestine” is a charming film suited for all ages.

Rating: 4 cups of cocoa

“On The Road” :contrasts and consequences

posterWalter Salles is the go-to director of road movies after “Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) and now this brilliant adaptation of On The Road.  Salles gives us the tedium of hours and days spent trapped in the car even as it’s careening across the county speeding Sal, Dean and Marylou on grand adventures.  Sam Riley, so amazing in “Control” (2007) is our writer.  Sal, the stand-in for Jack Kerouac, is  shown observing and absorbing the wild ride.  The quest? To experience life to the fullest!  Nights fueled by drugs, alcohol and passion are spent soul searching, dancing in clubs, and fornicating.

Feverishly scribbling in his tiny notebook, Sal watches the mesmerizing Dean (a naked performance by an often naked Garrett Hedlund) who seems to bed everyone who falls under his spell.  Kristen Stewart gives a fearless, yet vulnerable performance as his 16-year-old bride, Marylou, who becomes Dean’s willing companion in their mad hedonistic pursuits.

Scenes of partying till the wee hours are followed by Sal smoking, staring at his  blank page in the type writer, Dean in the car lot smoking as he waits to park cars…both characters stalled.  From this stillness, the film jumps to more action and they’re racing down the road again.  Stealing food, gasoline and sometimes cars, the friends meet some interesting characters on their journeys.  Great unexpected cameos by big name actors  add another layer of richness to the story.

Running time is two hours, but still Kirsten Dunst’s character, Camille gets short shrift.  She’s introduced as a beautiful, confident young student photographed in a golden light.  Dressed in rich colors, her hair coiffed in a blond bob, she’s in love with Dean and described as “Helen of Troy with a brain”.  Then in quick transitions, the color drains from her scenes.  Dean spends his days with her and his nights with his friend and lover, Carlos.  And finally, heavily-pregnant,  Camille is shown comforting their crying toddler.  Golden no more, she’s wearing no make-up,  in a white nightgown in a white room.  As Dean leaves to go out carousing with Sal, Camille weeps in bed.

The film is full of small still moments brilliantly acted by this young cast and the story is one of contrasts and consequences.  In this world, you must leave Dean to fully live your life.  Carlo flees the country to become a poet and pursue his male lovers.  Sal finds love in the fields of cotton pickers and, even Marylou must finally sever her connection to Dean by moving away and getting married.  Dean’s mesmerizing influence is inspiring but ultimately dangerous.  Only by rejecting Dean and getting on with his life, can Sal write his novel and turn this pain and passion for  Dean into art.

“On The Road” is a master work that does that rare thing; it makes the viewer want to read (or re-read) the novel.  Thank you Walter Salles.

Rating: 5 shots (cheap whiskey or mezcal), highest rating