Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

IndieFest: "Harrison Montgomery" at the Roxie, 7:15 tonight

Harrison Montgomery

One of the IndieFest films I got a chance to preview this week was Harrison Montgomery, which plays tonight at the Roxie and on the 20th at the Shattuck. It’s a strong ensemble film about a petty drug dealer and aspiring artist who, in the aftermath of a deal gone extremely bad, gets wrapped up in the lives of his neighbors. It stars Martin Landau as the title character, Octavio Gomez Berrios (Guerrilla) as the drug dealer, and Melora Walters (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) as the fetching older woman — luckily enough, also an aspiring artist — who lives across the hall with her daughter and jerk boyfriend. Look out! The film is very engaging, with several unexpected formal elements and a strong component of magical realism. It also builds up to an ending I guarantee you won’t predict, and you’ll be swept away by it.

It’s a San Francisco film all the way through. Not only were director Daniel Davila and producer Karim Ahmad both based here, but the film was shot entirely in the Tenderloin, on the block or two around Hotel Boyd, where the exteriors and some interiors were shot, and in a housing compound in the Presidio, where the rest of the interiors were done.

This is the very end of the film’s festival run; Davila and Ahmad told me, in an interview yesterday, that they view these screenings as a sort of homecoming for the film. Ahmad said that they were in negotiations for a commercial US release, so tonight (and the 20th in Berkeley) is your last chance to see it before everyone else does.

Trailer here.

Book on A’s GM to lens; Brad Pitt will play Billy Beane

Five years ago, the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis looked at the career of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and how he consistently managed to field a competitive team in one of the smallest team markets by drafting for certain types of impact players, as measured by statistics.

Now Stephen Soderburgh has signed to direct a film of the book, and Brad Pitt has signed to play the A’s GM.

Here’s Beane on the left, the other guy on the right:

IndieFest 11 Brings a Cornucopia of Indie Film to 16th Street & Beyond


[R to L: festival poster, Super Happy Fun Monkeybash!, and Abraham Obama.]

It’s hard to know where to start with an event as huge and as rich as the 11th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival, better known as IndieFest, which brings 15 days of first-rate independent film to the Roxie & the Victoria on 16th Street here, and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. Over one hundred features and shorts are on offer, and every single one of them was independently produced. And if that’s not enough for you, there are at least four official parties you can attend as well (see below).

The festival opens at the Victoria tonight with Somers Town (at 7:15), a gritty but humorous black-and-white drama from acclaimed British director Shane Meadows. It’s a story about Tomo (played by Thomas Turgoose), a 16-year old runaway from the Midlands who ends up in the London suburb the film is named for. There he encounters another equally lonely boy, Marek (Piotr Jagiello): a Polish transplant who has just arrived in town with his hard-drinking father. The film is about the bond these two boys form, and the acting is such that both kids won Best Actor prizes at last year’s Tribeca film festival.

No opening night would be complete without a good party after the screening, and this one is being held at CellSpace (Bryant at 18th) with live performances from the Extra Action Marching Band and Live Evil. Admission is free with your ticket stub. Otherwise it’s $10 — $5 in costume. While you’re on that page, check out the other IndieFest parties CellSpace will be hosting, including the Grease-themed wrap party — it’s a sock hop! — a Big Lebowski party, and a Roller Disco party.

But if all that partying sounds too exhausting for you, tonight you can stay put at the Victoria for another film: Fanboys, a madcap story about a group of friends who hatch a plot to break into Skywalker Ranch in order to steal a print of the (then-unreleased) Star Wars: Episode 1. It features cameos by Carrie Fisher, The Shatner, and many, many others. Check out the trailer behind that link for a good idea of what the film’s like.

Closing night, which is on February 22nd at the Shattuck Cinema, features the Cronenberg-eqsue Deadgirl, which proves that no coming-of-age story should be considered complete without a gorgeous undead babe to shake things up. Actually, it looks pretty creepy; watch the trailer behind that link!

In between there are many other highlights, some of which I’ll be writing more about in the days to come: Abraham Obama, the story of Ron English’s famous wheatpaste; Let Them Know, the story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records; Harrison Montgomery, a drama set in the Tenderloin; Super Happy Fun Monkeybash!, a 90–minute compilation of Japanese TV zaniness; and The Achievers, which does for fans of The Big Lebowski what Trekkies did for — well — Trekkies.

And I expect to write about some films that I haven’t even mentioned yet. The festival is just that packed.


Festival website here. Ticket prices: opening night $20 (including party); most events $10 in advance, $11 at the box office. Five-film passes $45, ten-film passes $85. Festival pass good for all films and parties, $200. Most shows are at either the Roxie or Victoria Theatres, each within two blocks of the 16 Street Mission BART station; the Shattuck Cinema is one block south of the Downtown Berkeley BART station.

Disposable Film Festival a Showcase for Experimentation

Not long ago, you could only make a film if you had access to money for expensive equipment and other resources. But today, high-quality digital video cameras are inexpensive enough for almost anybody to purchase, and beyond that, video-capture technology is getting better on devices many people already own, like cell phones and point-and-shoot camera.

In other words, you can be a filmmaker, starting today, with nothing more than your cell phone.

That’s the message that Eric Slatkin and Carlton Evans want to get out with their Disposable Film Festival, which opens tonight at the Roxie with a competitive program of shorts, and continues with a single program each day through the weekend. Each program showcases film made with “disposable media,” which, according to Slatkin, is “video footage captured on these new alternative devices — the cell phone, the web cam, the point-and-shoot camera,” as well as a whole new generation of inexpensive video cameras, such as the Creative Vado, the Flip Video Ultra, and the Kodak Zi6.

All these devices were originally made for personal documentary purposes, but together they have “opened up the floodgates” by enabling anyone to make a film. In a joint phone interview conducted last week, Evans pointed out that now, “everybody has access to these devices. Five years ago, if you had a casual impulse to make a film, you really wouldn’t have been able to do it” for lack of equipment and finances. “It’s getting so cheap,” Evans said. “For example, the Kodak Zi6 [which can record 10 hours of high-definition video] is in the $180 range.” 

However, Slatkin and Evans see more than just a change in the technology of filmmaking; they believe that these technological changes are driving an aesthetic shift. “It’s not just that people are making films with these devices,” Evans said. “They’re actually transforming the way that films are being made. A new aesthetic is emerging.”

Because the media is “disposable” — footage costs nothing more than a little battery power, and can be thrown out instantly — Slatkin and Evans see a strong shift towards experimentation. Filmmakers are doing things one could never do with expensive equipment, such as on-the-fly shooting and kinetic filming. They believe that all this experimentation will inevitably influence mainstream filmmaking. In fact, it already has. Evans cited Cloverfield, which was presented as found footage from a camcorder, as an example of this influence. “This is an aesthetic that everybody understands right away,” he said.

Some people are already masterful in the form, such as Fritz Donnelly, who will have an evening devoted to his work Saturday night at ATA. “He was a disposable filmmaker before it was even a ‘thing,’ ” Evans said. “I first saw his work in the Hi/Lo Festival,” which is a festival devoted to high-concept-low-budget films. Later on, Evans met him at SXSW, and in November Donnelly showed Evans and Slatkin the films he’d recently been making with his cell phone. A lot of Donnelly’s films are quick sketches created on the spot whenever he has an idea. “He had been carrying around this DV cam, but now he just uses his phone,” Evans said.

On Friday night, also at ATA, the festival features Buttons, by Red Bucket Films, which is a feature-length collection of tiny vignettes from real life, a kind of impressionistic sketchbook portrait of New York City. “These guys are true filmmakers,” Slatkin said, “and sometimes there’s a magic poignancy they reach” in these moments.

Tonight’s program, at the Roxie, consists of twenty-five short films shown over an hour and twenty minutes. (The first screening has already sold out, but they have added a screening at 10:00.) These films were selected from about 300 submissions. “The thing that was most amazing about it,” Evans said, “is that about 30 different countries were represented in that.” In the final program, there are films from Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and other countries in addition to the US and Canada.

In case you can’t make it, all the shorts will eventually be featured on the DFF website, but Slatkin says they have continued to put on shows at traditional venues because “there are real limitations in viewing a creative work online.” According to Slatkin, films shown in a theater tend to have more of an emotional impact on the viewer, because of the large screen, the darkened room, and the communal nature of the experience.

Finally, on Sunday at noon, the festival will present a panel hosted at Oddball Films at 275 Capp Street. The panel will discuss how you can get into disposable filmmaking yourself, addressing all the basic details of equipment and editing software.

And if you happen to take that information and make a film you’d like to enter in the festival for next year, submissions will open in March or April. Watch their website for details.

Film: The Owl and the Sparrow


The Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight in San Jose and on February 13th in San Francisco, tells a simple story: Thuy, an orphaned 10-year-old girl, runs away from her overbearing uncle in the countryside and tries to make a new life for herself in Saigon. While selling postcards and flowers, she meets and befriends a zookeeper whose fiance has left him, and a beautiful flight attendant who is about to break off her affair with a married pilot. Eventually she gets the idea of bringing these two lonely hearts together, creating a makeshift family of her own, which will soon collide with the authorities and with her uncle, who has been searching the city for her.

It sounds like a recipe for unbearable sentimentality, but the film has a gritty element: what with the handheld cameras, the naturalistic performances, and the street scenes, the sweetness was offset just enough that hard-boiled cynics like me could enjoy it too. “For me, Saigon is the fourth character in the film,” director Stephane Gauger said, in a joint interview with his executive producer, Timothy Linh Bui, in San Francisco on Monday. “You feel the city, but at the core, it’s really about the kindness of strangers and humanity,” Gauger said. “And I hope that’s the message that a lot of people come away with.”

Bui and Gauger (pronounced GOW-ger) have known one another for many years now, ever since Gauger’s student days at Cal State Fullerton. Since then they’ve worked together on five feature films, but The Owl and the Sparrow is Gauger’s first stint as director. This weekend marks its first theatrical release in the United States, but on the festival circuit it has won about ten awards — including the award for Best Narrative Feature at last year’s International Asian American Film Festival — and it has had a few screenings overseas as well, including in Vietnam. I asked how it played there.

“They liked it,” Gauger said, “but there, it’s more for an art house crowd. The public tends to like things a little more broad, a little glossier, and this one is a little more real. A little more slice of life.”

“It wasn’t escapism for them,” Bui interjected. “Here, you’re transported in a way to a foreign land.”

“You have elephants and third-world street kids in this,” Gauger added, “so it has a little bit of exotic appeal to it.”

There are a lot of kids in Saigon just like Thuy, who are selling things just to survive. Most of them have family in the countryside, often rice farmers, who don’t make much money. It’s common for kids to stay with relatives in the city, and while they sometimes go to school during the day, they always work at night, selling jewelry beads or postcards or flowers, and then send a little money back home when they can, to try and help out.

Of course, a lot of these kids, never end up getting to school. Bui said that it’s not so much that they fall through the cracks as that “school becomes a lot less important when you’re just trying to eat.” He elaborated: “It’s a sad situation. They should be in school, if they’re not, they should be in bed by 9 PM, but you see them at 2 in the morning when you’re at a club. But they have to survive.”

Thuy is played by Pham Thi Han (pictured above at center), who was one of only ten girls that Gauger auditioned. Gauger compared this to his experience with Bui on Three Seasons, where they auditioned about 500 children. “Normally,” Gauger said, “you cast a wide net, but I kind of streamlined everything to meet our guerilla schedule.”

Guerrilla is just the right word to describe it. Gauger only had fifteen days to shoot in thirty locations, and he had five days to do the casting — casting which included an elephant and an orangutan. Gauger said that originally, he had envisioned a tiger instead of an elephant. I asked him whether he made the change because the tiger was too dangerous to work with. Actually, it was just the opposite. The problem with tigers, Gauger said, is that a tiger is really a big cat, “so they just sleep all day. It’s so uncinematic — they’re just laying there. But with elephants, there is a lot of interaction with the zookeepers.” Out of five, they chose the youngest and the tamest. It seems that elephants are very easy to direct: “If you want the elephant to get closer to the camera,” Gauger said, “just wave sugar cane at it. t comes right over!”

Orangutans, on the other hand, are not so simple to work with. “We had three scenes in the script with the monkey, but we shot the first scene and then he didn’t stay still.” That was a problem because of continuity concerns. “If the orangutan is here in one shot, and there in another shot, it’s just a lot harder to get good continuity. You can’t really tell an orangutan to stay out of your shot. So we did one scene and had to let it go.”

The production was guerrilla in other ways, too. With a self-financed budget of $50,000, a minimal crew, and a small cast, they were able to stay mobile and easily move from location to location. There was no need for large vans: all they had to do was grab a couple taxis, load up the gear, and go. And with such a tight shooting schedule, there was never any downtime. “It was liberating,” Gauger said. “The actors have fun, they feel the energy, because they’re never waiting around. They’re always on, always in character. Sometimes we’d just do four takes and move right on to rehearsing the next scene.”

The only actor who was not auditioned at the time was Cat Ly, who plays the flight attendant. Cat Ly is American-Vietnamese, and she’s actually a known singer in the community. Bui said that she acted in his first student film, 15 years ago, and then he lost track of her for ten years until she appeared in Journey from the Fall. “I was a gaffer on that film,” Gauger said, “and we hung out. I liked her acting style in that film.” So, back in Orange County, he asked her out to grab some pho, and he described his project to her: fast, with no time to rehearse, and he couldn’t pay her much, but it would be an adventure. Why did she say yes? Gauger thinks that it was the opportunity to do a “nice role” and work with “somebody who is a little bit not the norm, who’s not going to play it safe,” offering her a chance to express herself. “It’s a good challenge,” he said.

Many of the people who appear in the film were non-pros or first-time actors. Some of them were just people who had noticed that they were shooting a film and joked that Gauger should put them in a film someday. So in many cases, he went ahead and did just that: “a lot of the background, bit-part people were just girls who worked at hotels or restaurants. They would just be hanging out, greeting guests all day, so they’d have time to slip over for an hour and do a scene.” I asked what was it like working with non-pros. “It’s nice, because sometimes you get a little more of a naturalistic performance. They don’t overthink it too much.” He also found that when he placed a non-pro in the frame with a trained actor, “they’d meet in the middle. The pro is more grounded in reality, and the non-pros have to up their game a little.”

Gauger and Bui intend to collaborate on another film once they have finished with The Owl and the Sparrow. It’ll be a film about the Vietnamese national soccer team and their English coach. “Storytelling-wise it will be emotionally in the same line as this, but bigger,” Bui said. By way of explanation, Gauger added that “we’ve got a couple of soccer matches in it, so we’re going to have to fill up a stadium.”

In the meantime, enjoy the Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight at the Camera 3 in San Jose, and on February 13th at the Sundance Kabuki.

Wenders tribute, appearance Tuesday at Castro Theatre

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders

The highlight of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, now playing through the 24th, has to be the Jan. 20 tribute to director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The American Friend) which will include a new documentary about the German filmmaker, a live interview with him on stage, and a showing of his new film Palermo Shooting. Read an interview with Wenders from Sunday’s SF Chronicle.

Wenders’ connections to San Francisco are many. Francis Ford Coppola supported his work during the 1980s, even renaming the Zim’s Diner on the first level of the Zoetrope Building “Wim’s” (still owned by Coppola, it’s now the fancy Cafe Zoetrope) and producing Wenders’ 1982 film Hammet, which was shot here. Wenders also has connections to Bay Area actor and playwright Sam Shepard, collaborating with him on 1984’s Paris, Texas and 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking.

During the 1980s, Wenders often appeared for premieres of his films in San Francisco at the Castro, the Roxie and, I think, the old Surf Theatre.

Berlin & Beyond Film Festival at the Castro 1/15 – 21


[Above: Wim Wenders in One Who Set Forth.] 

The 14th Annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which is a showcase for new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland curated by the Goethe-Institut, opens at the Castro Theatre tomorrow night. Altogether, the festival features twenty-five full-length films and a program of ten shorts, along with several special events.

One of these events is the presentation of an award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing to Wim Wenders, right after the US Premiere of his latest film, Shooting Palermo, about which I’ll write more later in the week. Brief review: it’s not as crisp as it might have been, but good watching all the same. Wim Wenders is the acclaimed director of such films as Kings of the Road (which will be shown Sunday), Buena Vista Social Club, and Paris, Texas.

Another special event is an extraordinary screening of the Marlene Dietrich classic, The Blue Angel. Extraordinary, because this is not the film you know! It turns out that German directors in the early sound era made a practice of shooting in German for the home market, and then shooting the same scenes in English for the international market. This print is of the English-language version, which was recently discovered in the Berlin Archives and restored.

Opening night begins on January 15th at 6:30 with a party (special admission required) followed by an open screening at 8:00 of Cherry Blossoms, which is being co-presented with Frameline. The story follows a middle-aged German-Japanese couple. When the wife unexpectedly dies on a journey from Berlin to Tokyo, where they had planned to visit their son, the husband continues on and on the way “discovers a new understanding of both his late wife and himself.” The director, Doris Dörrie, says that she drew heavily upon Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story for inspiration. The lead actress, Hannelore Elsner, will be present at the screening.

There are too many great films and events to highlight in a single article, so this will be the first of many posts covering the festival. Check back here for daily updates; in the meantime, here is the full schedule and the tickets page.

SF doctor’s book released; film to star DiCaprio; interview

A year ago I blogged about Josh Bazell, a doctor at UCSF who had just gotten a million dollar book deal. Well, the book, Beat the Reaper, has just been released, and Leonardo DiCaprio has just been signed to star in a film of the comic thriller. I’ll let that E! Online article give the one-line summary of the book: it’s “a comic suspense tale about a former hit man hiding out as a Manhattan emergency room doctor whose cover is blown after a mobster recognizes him.” The main character is also a martial arts expert who kills people with his hands, as well as with — not to give away the ending — a particularly unique weapon.

I caught up with author Josh Bazell on Thursday and talked to him about his book and his work as a newly minted M.D.

How did you decide to write a novel about a hit man who has become a brilliant doctor?

I was interested in writing a book about the extent to which people can change their own identities. I was focused on that issue at the time because I was doing my medical training, and I was probably curious — and maybe fearful — about how it might change me.

Much more after the jump

Film: SFFS New Italian Cinema Continues Through Nov. 23


[Image from Black Sea.]

Another one of the many, many film festivals of late November, the San Francisco Film Society’s New Italian Cinema series continues at the Embarcadero Cinema tonight through Sunday, November 23rd. If you haven’t been to any of the films since it started Sunday, don’t fret: you’ve only missed three out of the twelve features that comprise the festival. So don’t write it off!

There are a number of good-to-great films in the lineup, as KQED’s Michael Fox reports here. The films for this afternoon and evening include two that Fox reviews: A Night at 4:30, and Cover Boy: The Last Revolution at 6:15. (Each has another screening on the 22nd and the 23rd, respectively.) Don’t miss Black Sea, pictured above, which screens at 7:00 on Friday and Saturday night.

Above all, don’t miss the closing night reception on Sunday from 7:30 in the former Gallery One space of One Embarcadero. The reception offers “complimentary Peroni beer, wine from Siena Imports and delicious appetizers from Fuzio Universal Bistro,” and it will be followed by a screening at 8:45 by a film I’ve been advised no one should miss: Gomorrah, a “hyper-realistic drama” based on Robert Saviano’s groundbreaking expose by the same name: “far from the glamorized portrait of the Mafia common in American films, Gomorrah is grim, gritty, almost documentary-like cinema—an exposé of widespread corruption and an impassioned demand that something be done to halt its spread.”

In other words, if you are weak of stomach, don’t hit the Peroni too hard before viewing this one. But don’t skip it, either.

Full schedule here; all films screen at the Embarcadero Cinema, in Embarcadero One. Advance tix here.

Film: "Ghosts" at the Roxie, Nov 21-26

Ai Qin Lin

[Ai Qin Lin in Ghosts]

Nick Broomfield has directed 24 films, almost all of them investigative documentaries of one sort or another, some of them lightly fictionalized. Ghosts [trailer], which opens at the Roxie this Friday night, is in the latter group. It follows the story of Ai Qin, a young woman from Fujian province who pays a snakehead $25,000 to be smuggled into the UK. Once she finally gets there, she finds herself trapped in a situation where she has to do the worst jobs almost without respite. Her ordeal comes to a climax when she gets trapped by the rising tide with a crew of Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay, and nearly drowns there — as did twenty-three of her fellow workers. The film is based on Ai Qin’s actual journey, and all of the people who appear in it are non-actors who either were formerly, or currently still are, illegal immigrants. It’s a fascinating and moving film.

Last Friday we had a chance to sit down with Mr. Broomfield and talk about Ghosts a little bit. We discussed the undercover research he did, the unique challenges he faced in casting and working with non-actors, and the relief fund he has set up to aid the families of the victims at Morecambe Bay, since they are still liable to ruthless loan sharks for the huge debts the victims incurred in order to be smuggled to the UK. As Broomfield told me, “the family left behind in China, which is generally the very old and their children, are held as hostages, as a kind of surety for the loan. So if they default, they take it out on the family. It’s been known for them to get the kids and sell the kids, do awful stuff. So the people in England, they’re just literally working around the clock to fulfill these things, and they’ll do any job that comes along.”

The interview begins below and continues after the jump.

SF METBLOG: So, this film is something of a minor departure for you: it’s a narrative film, but it’s based on a great deal of hard research. How did you approach the research?

BROOMFIELD: Well, I personally worked undercover for a couple of weeks, living in a Chinese house. I was pretending to be an Afrikaner, because you get Afrikaners who do that kind of thing. Ai Qin and I paid some kind of introductory fee to these snakeheads, and they gave us the name of a gangmaster in Birmingham.

So we went up there and lived in this house for a couple of weeks. It was like ten people to a room, and we’d get up at 4:30 in the morning. It was very hard work. But I was able to at least get a basis to work from, first-hand knowledge of what the people were like and what the work was like, and to try and make something that was as real as possible.

[In addition] I had some Chinese students working for me. We’d go undercover and get statistics such as how much they were being paid per hour, how much tax they were having to pay the [recruitment agency], because they have all these recruitment agencies, these labor agencies, that are also very corrupt. [Certain individuals who worked there] would charge people some 42% tax, and they’d just pocket the money themselves. I wanted to document that kind of stuff as much as possible, and also to be able to name some of the people who were doing it, which we did in the film.

Really? I didn’t realize that. I assumed that all the individuals apart from Ai Qin were invented.


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