Monday, December 15, 2014

LISTS: 10 FAVORITE INTERVIEWS

As time goes along, I find myself interviewing less and less and yet, even so, year's end reminds me as I have often said that my world is made up of conversations. Here are my favorites for the year.

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (Al Midan / The Square, 2013)—One of documentary's prime imperatives is to reveal the heart of revolution against government oppression. Sadly but surely, there is no shortage of such films year after year. What is often lacking in reportage of such events, however, is a sense of remedy. With The Square, director Noujaim and producer Amer have chronicled the communal conscription of space for political assembly and energized Egypt's historical events with intimate reportage. With the right to political assembly being threatened within our own borders by an increasingly militarized police force, it's important to consider that revolutions don't always occur in other countries.

Adam Bakri and Waleed Zuaiter (Omar, 2013)—Placing political conflicts within narrative contexts can prove problematic, especially if nested within a romance. But even more difficult is to depict the dynamics of manipulated collaboration. It was with great pleasure that I sat down with the lead actors of Hany Abu-Assad's Omar in the Palm Springs International press lounge to discuss their efforts to bring this collaborationist narrative to the screen.

Oskar Alegria (In Search Of Emak Bakia, 2012)—Every now and then I gain a friend through an interview. Such was the case with Oskar Alegria and In Search of Emak Bakia, a film that built itself out of the imaginative sleuthing of its first-time director. Oskar and I have maintained a healthy correspondence since our first conversation about his evocative, poetic film and are striving to bring the first-ever Basque Film Festival to the United States. We thought Boise with its huge Basque population would be the perfect venue but they ignored us (their loss), so now we're wooing San Francisco. Wish us luck.

Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller (The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden, 2014)—San Francisco filmmakers Goldfine and Geller are a personable pair and I much enjoyed getting together with them at a coffeehouse on Divisadero to discuss what I considered one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year for proving that the simplest stories are often the most complex. I'm stunned that they did not receive an Oscar® nod for this heady hybrid of archival excavation and narrative voiceover that spoke to unreliable narrators and self-made mythologies. I'm grateful to my friends at Fandor for publishing my conversation with the duo, and comments on Nathaniel Dorsky's involvement with their earlier project Ballets Russes (2005) were appended here on The Evening Class.

Paolo Cherchi Usai (Too Much Johnson, 1938)—Every now and then I'm asked to do an interview and when the request comes from an institution like the Pacific Film Archive, how can I possibly refuse? And, of course, any opportunity to converse with the erudite Paolo Cherchi Usai is welcome. In the company of such a scholar, I find myself focusing on basic definitions. Again, I'm thankful to Fandor for placing the interview at Keyframe.

Don Malcom—I have two interviews with Malcolm this year, profiling his recent Midcentury Productions programming efforts at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre. The first was for the series "Don Murray: Unsung Hero" from earlier this year, and the second for the more recent (and immensely successful) French Noir series. That latter conversation has yet to be transcribed (but, hopefully, will be accomplished by year's end). Again, here is an instance where I have found a friend within a conversation and—perhaps even more importantly—a professional colleague whose work I hope to monitor in years to come.

Linda Williams—With the publication of her Duke University volume On The Wire, my conversation with this U.C. Berkeley professor has probably affected me more than any other conversation this year. I consider her flat-out brilliant and her accessibility as an academic deeply rewarding. Narrative seriality has become her focus in recent years, which she has applied to HBO's hit TV series The Wire. But she isn't stopping there. I anticipate great results from the upcoming "Serialities 1915/2015" symposium, the third installment in U.C. Berkeley's ongoing International Berkeley Conference on Film and Media. Along with her focus on narrative seriality, Williams enlightened me to subtle perspectives on the melodrama genre.

Peter Von Bagh—Timing is everything. How graced was I to converse with Peter von Bagh before his passing this year? Just to have the chance to sit down with such an important figure in world cinema validates my cinephilia. He was one of a kind and I feel blessed to have had the chance to talk to him.

Fernando Eimbecke (Club Sandwich, 2013)—Over the years my knowledge of Mexican cinema has increased in leaps and bounds, stretching back to the country's golden age as well as providing opportunity to interact with its youngest generation(s). Eimbecke is relatively established at this point, but a conversation with this charming fellow has been long overdue. My thanks to the San Francisco International for setting up the interview, soon to be published (again, hopefully early next year) by my friends at Fandor.

Noaz Deshe (White Shadow, 2013)—Yet another transcription in queue is my conversation with Noaz Deshe, the first-time director of White Shadow, one of my favorite films from this year's San Francisco International. Again, my thanks to Bill Proctor for setting up the interview, Deshe for meeting me for breakfast at Sweet Maple, and Fandor for publishing the interview early next year.

Jonathan Taieb (Stand, 2014)—With the persecution of LGBT in Russia, I was quite taken with Taieb's narrative Stand, which screened at this year's Frameline Film Festival. A lovely young filmmaker, Taieb agreed to meet me at Kate's Kitchen to discuss this important and timely narrative. Soon to be published here on The Evening Class.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

NOIR CITY XMAS 2014: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLEThe Evening Class Interview With Ann Carter-Newton

Ann Carter-Newton is best remembered for her touching performance in Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People (1944). It remains an extraordinary example of a top-quality child performance in terms of sensitivity, natural talent and believability. And Eddie Muller and his crew at Noir City are bringing it to San Francisco's Castro Theatre for this year's Noir City Christmas. "Maybe you can tell me," Eddie asked on Facebook, "why I feel compelled to show this film for our Christmas program?" "Because," I answered, "the heart of the innocent child is the snowflake star of winter."

Ann Carter was born in June 1936 in Syracuse and moved to California with her parents when she was three years old. Once there, a neighbor who worked for one of the film studios introduced her to producer / director Herbert Brenon, who worked to turn her into a fine young actress. A year later, she landed a key—though uncredited—role in The Last of the Duanes (1941).

Because of her resemblance to Veronica Lake, Carter was later cast to play Lake's daughter in I Married A Witch (1942), on which the TV series Bewitched was loosely based (making Carter's character a parallel to Tabitha on the TV series). This led to a number of other films, including The Curse of the Cat People, And Now Tomorrow (1944), Song of Love (1947), Ruthless (1948) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949).

Carter had another high-profile role as daughter of Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), for which she won the Critics Award for Top Juvenile Performance at age 10. Her last film appearance was in The Member of the Wedding (1952), a film that Val Lewton had originally been developing. It was during the filming of The Member of the Wedding that director Fred Zinnemann looked at Ann Carter and asked, "What's wrong with that child? She's leaning to port." Carter's mother took her to the doctor, who diagnosed the young actress with polio. For an entire year, she had to live in a full body cast weighing 55 pounds. It marked the end of her acting career.

In 2008, on the occasion of the Turner Classic Movies premiere broadcast of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007), directed by Kent Jones and produced (and narrated) by Martin Scorsese, I hosted the Val Lewton "blogathon" here at The Evening Class. In anticipation, Turner Classic Movies arranged for me to interview Ann Carter shortly before Christmas in 2007. At that time she was 71, married, and a grandmother living in Washington state. Sadly, Ann passed away earlier this year on January 27, 2014.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Ann, I'm delighted to have a few minutes with you this morning to stroll down Memory Lane in Hollywood. For 10 years you had an incredible run as a child actress in such notable films as, of course, Val Lewton's Curse of the Cat People, but also I Married A Witch (1942, with Veronica Lake), The Virginian (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), and The Boy With Green Hair (1948), just to name a few. Though polio forced you to retire, you must remain proud of this decade of work?

Ann Carter-Newton: I am. Except every time I see one of the movies, I see things I could have done better.

Guillén: As any conscientious artist would! After you retired from acting, you went into teaching?

Carter-Newton: I did. After I had polio and went through a lot of treatment for that with casts and all kinds of things, I finished college and I taught secondary school, high school.

Guillén: General education? Any particular focus?

Carter-Newton: No, but there was English and Drama. At the last of my teaching, I taught continuation high school, which I really loved; in California they called it continuation. It's Special Ed for students who choose to be there by contract and have various problems. You work with them individually and I liked that the best.

Guillén: I was so pleased that you came out of retirement to contribute to the Scorsese / Jones documentary. Your comments were so interesting. Can you speak about working on the set for Curse of the Cat People and what the conditions were like?

Carter-Newton: That was a memorable experience because the set was a very happy set for me. I was eight years old. It was 1944. I was fascinated by the way they dealt with the sound stage, which they changed from Summer to Fall to Winter.

Guillén: That must have been loads of fun as a child to experience.

Carter-Newton: Oh yes. It was beautiful what they did. There were people up in the catwalks throwing the snow—which was gypsum and untoasted cornflakes—out of boxes. All of this was very interesting and exciting to a child. And I am an only child like Amy was in the movie. I grew up around adults. Maybe that makes quite a difference in a child's life.

Guillén: Was Val Lewton ever on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, he was. I remember seeing him and knowing who he was but I don't remember any conversations with him. In my mind when I see him, he was always nicely dressed. He had on a suit and tie. He was formally dressed as opposed to some others who were working on different aspects of the production.

Guillén: My understanding is that as a child actress you would work four-hour days, is that correct?

Carter-Newton: I think it was four hours. We had to have three hours of school.

Guillén: And that tutoring was right there on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, off in some quiet place. You always had a welfare worker who was a teacher and he was there to look out after your welfare and to teach you. On that set it was pretty much one-on-one. It was an opportunity to learn a lot every time I did that and I loved that part. I believe it was four hours a day and that's why we had stand-ins and support.

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is unique in that it had two directors: originally Gunther von Fritsch who was then replaced by Robert Wise. Was that odd for you to have two different directors?

Carter-Newton: No, it really wasn't.

Guillén: Can you speak about what you recall about each of them and differentiate how they each directed you differently, if so?

Carter-Newton: Gunther von Fritsch was more intimidating. He was very nice to me—there was no one on that whole picture that was not extremely kind and nice to me as an eight-year-old—but, he was a little more rigid probably and maybe not as easy for me to communicate with as Robert Wise was. Robert Wise was extremely easy for me to understand and I knew exactly what he wanted. It was more comfortable with him.

Guillén: Your performance absolutely commands Curse of the Cat People. You're in nearly every frame. It's astounding for a child actor to have such depth to a role as you exhibited in this one. How did you work at creating the character of Amy Reed? You mentioned that you were an only child, so you had that point of reference, but how did von Fritsch and Wise work with you to develop the character?

Carter-Newton: I would say that probably the most important influence was my mother who worked with me. We had a routine. When I would leave the studio, we'd go home and eat dinner, have a bath and go to bed quite early, as early as possible. We would learn the lines for the next day; but, more importantly, we would talk about the whole scene and the script so that I would know exactly what was going on. Some of it was scary for me and I needed to know exactly what the story was and what was going on. After all, there were quite a lot of people on the set.

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is so textured and complex and I know it's been used as a textbook study in psychology courses on child development. As a child—with your mother's guidance—I'm sure you had a certain understanding about what the film was about. All these years later, do you have the same understanding, or has time leant a different understanding to the film?

Carter-Newton: I don't have a different understanding of the film. It's the same.

Guillén: So the film's message was simple and steady enough to come across then for you as a child, even as it does now?

Carter-Newton: It was and is, yes. I did mention in the interview piece for the documentary about Irena's dress. Simone Simon was interesting. She was very nice to me. She had that dress with all the stars. I was just fascinated by that dress and went around picking up the stars that had fallen off. That seemed important to me.

Guillén: You thought that was your job on the set?

Carter-Newton: I did. I remember that very clearly, yes.

Guillén: So you say that Simone was very sweet to you but I've read elsewhere that she didn't really want to do this film. None of that came across to you?

Carter-Newton: I didn't know that. That didn't come across to me at all.

Guillén: I've heard a rumor—and please just slap me up alongside the head if you don't want to answer this—but, I've heard a rumor that you had a missing tooth during the shooting of this film and that you were directed not to smile for fear the gap would show. Is that true?

Carter-Newton: No. I don't remember that at all. I remember having a missing tooth during Commandos Strike At Dawn (1942); but, that was an earlier movie and I don't remember being told not to smile. I do remember that—during the time that I did have a missing tooth—it was earlier and I had a bridge made.

Guillén: Well, then we've dispelled that rumor, which was floating around out there.

[Note: On January 3, 2008, I received the following email from TCM's publicist: "Ann would like you to call Michael and tell him he was right about the missing tooth. Ann went back in her photos and it wasn't her front tooth, but the one next to it that was missing. Once Michael mentioned it, she got to thinking and with the photos, the story Michael told her did happen."]

Now that film culture has matured and access to these films are readily available to people through video and DVD, what is it like for you to know audiences are watching this film today?  Did you ever imagine that would happen?

Carter-Newton: No. Never. And I was very surprised when it was colorized as well. Some of those colors were definitely not right because I remember the color of the dresses I wore and they're not right in the colorized version.

Guillén: I think colorizing old black and white films was just a passing phase in American film culture; one which has fortunately seen its day.

Carter-Newton: I don't like it.

Guillén: I don't either. Have you shared your films with your own children and your grandchildren?

Carter-Newton: I have. My grandson saw Curse of the Cat People. He's 11 and he's a very imaginative boy and he appreciated it much more than my own children. My children, when they were young, I would get after them about something and—maybe there'd be one of my movies on TV—and they'd say, "Oh, you just think you're so smart because your name is in the TV Guide." There were a couple of times when my name was in the TV Guide and I remember them saying that.

Guillén: [Laughter.] I wish I could get my name in the TV Guide! Didn't they realize how glamorous that was?

Carter-Newton: [Laughter.] No, I was put down by my own children. But they're different now. They're OK now.

Guillén: Straying away a bit from Curse of the Cat People, there's also a story about how you intimidated your contemporary Margaret O'Brien at an audition by wearing white gloves?

Carter-Newton: My mother told me that story. We went on an interview—I think it might have been for The Last of the Duanes in 1940—I was four. Margaret O'Brien and I were the same age; she was four too. My mom told me that Margaret O'Brien had forgotten to say her lines because she was so fascinated with my gloves. I don't remember it but I heard it from my mother.

Guillén: Your mother sounds like she was a very smart woman.

Carter-Newton: Yes, and she was very interested in drama and anything like that. She had wanted to do that herself and be involved in some way herself; but, that didn't happen because her father wouldn't allow her to even have any lessons. She concentrated on me and I was the only one and that was it.

Guillén: In The Two Mrs. Carrolls you worked with Humphrey Bogart who nicknamed you "Tonsils." Why's that?

Carter-Newton: Because in the very beginning of the film, one of the first scenes, he comes home from his work and I'm sitting on the arm of a couch talking to him. While we were rehearsing, I yawned—evidently a very big yawn—and he looked down my throat and he said, "Oh, tonsils." And that was it from then on.

Guillén: Do you remember anything about Bogie?

Carter-Newton: I do. All good things. I remember how funny and nice he was with me. I also remember that—at that time—Lauren Bacall would visit the set often and I remember seeing her.

Guillén: Have you written down your remembrances, Ann?

Carter-Newton: I have not.

Guillén: Do you intend to?

Carter-Newton: I probably should.

Guillén: Oh yes, I strongly believe you should! You had such a wondrous opportunity as a child actress to meet and mingle with these personalities who are now the acknowledged stars of yesteryear.

Carter-Newton: I have some wonderful pictures autographed by them too and things like that. I should write down all my memories. I should. I remember on the set of The Curse of the Cat People that I used to call Sir Lancelot "Mr." Sir Lancelot.

Guillén: To wrap up then, what a delight it's been to chat with you this morning. I'm so glad that you came out of retirement to offer commentary in the Scorsese / Jones documentary. It adds such a beautiful personal touch.

Carter-Newton: I'm honored to be able to do this. Especially because I've had such a scary time with cancer a couple of years ago. I'm very happy I'm here to do it.

Guillén: So am I, Ann! Because of your recent bout with cancer, I encourage you all the more to share your memories with us by writing them down. Your memories are of value. People love films and what has gone into the making of them.

Carter-Newton: I will. I have a daughter who will help me a great deal with that. She's an organized type of person. I will.

Guillén: Great! Thank you very much, Ann.

SFFCC 2014—AWARDS

At the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) annual voting meeting, we decide on the best—if not our favorite—movies of the year. As laid out in my two previous posts, this is curtailed by theatrical distribution and then extensively worried over in email volleys, Facebook exchanges, tweets on Twitter, telephone calls and one-on-one discussions. By the time we get to the voting meeting (which this year was hosted by the Variety Club), we're informed and ready to argue for or against the final two nominations in each category. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of being a member of SFFCC is this opportunity to hear my colleagues express informed opinions in active debate. I learn so much by listening and, here and again, am convinced to change my vote. What follows are our awards for the 2014 season.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Keaton, Birdman

BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Edward Norton, Birdman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

BEST SCREENPLAY, Original: Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu; Nicolas Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris; Armanso Bo

BEST SCREENPLAY, Adapted: Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Ida, Ryszard Lenczewski; Lukasz Zal

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Adam Stockhausen

EDITING: Boyhood, Sandra Adair

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: The Lego Movie

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE: Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Laura Poitras, CitizenFour

BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

BEST PICTURE: Boyhood

SPECIAL CITATION: The One I Love

MARLON RIGGS AWARD: Joel Shepard, Film/Video Curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Saturday, December 13, 2014

SFFCC 2014—SECONDARY BALLOT

With the primary ballots of all the members of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) tabulated, a secondary ballot has been formulated from which we must each choose and rank three of the five possible nominees. These will, in turn, be tabulated and—when we have our voting meeting on Sunday—we will be asked to choose between two (if there's a tie, three). Hedging towards that fateful day, here are my ranked choices. The final two in each list are those I have rejected.

BEST ACTOR

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

BEST ACTRESS

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Edward Norton, Birdman
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
Emma Stone, Birdman
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

BEST SCREENPLAY, Original

Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu; Nicolas Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris; Armanso Bo
Boyhood, Richard Linklater
Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh
A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor
Grand Budapest Hotel, Stefan Zweig; Wes Anderson; Hugo Guinness
Whiplash, Damien Chazelle

BEST SCREENPLAY, Adapted

Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong; Kelly Masterson
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Wild, Nick Hornby
Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Imitation Game, Grahame Moore

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Ida, Ryszard Lenczewski; Lukasz Zal
Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert D. Yeoman
Under the Skin, Daniel Landin

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Snowpiercer, Ondrej Nekvasil
Mr. Turner, Suzie Davies
Birdman, Kevin Thompson
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Adam Stockhausen
Inherent Vice, David Crank

EDITING

Boyhood, Sandra Adair
Birdman, Douglas Crise; Stephen Mirrione
Under the Skin, Paul Watts
Inherent Vice, Leslie Jones
Whiplash, Tom Cross

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

How To Train Your Dragon 2
The Box Trolls
Big Hero 6
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Lego Movie

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE

Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night
Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida
Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure
Damián Szifrón, Wild Tales
Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Note: Here I have to object to the inclusion of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, despite the fact that it is delivered in Farsi, and despite the fact that I love the movie so much. As I have often argued here on The Evening Class, the concept of a national cinema—originally created to contest the hegemony of Hollywood product—has in recent years become all but obsolete with multi-lingual scripts and multi-national financing. The category will capsize altogether should it be given to a movie made by an American director on American locations, with a stylized use of Farsi. If SFFCC sets the precedent that all an American director has to do is make their film in a foreign language in order for it to be deemed a foreign film, then a valuable cultural distinction is lost and European cinemas, let alone Third World cinemas, will have been wrested of opportunity and fair share on the global stage. I hate to think that SFFCC would support such a hegemonic maneuver.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Laura Poitras, CitizenFour
John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier
Frank Pavich, Jodorowsky's Dune
Steve James, Life Itself
Jesse Moos, The Overnighters

BEST DIRECTOR

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin

BEST PICTURE

Boyhood
Birdman
Under the Skin
The Imitation Game
Whiplash

SPECIAL CITATION

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Blue Ruin
Listen Up Philip
The One I Love

Thursday, December 11, 2014

SFFCC 2014—PRELIMINARY BALLOT

Voting for the 2014 San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) for our year-end favorites presents the annual hurdle of coming up with a list of nominations that reflect individual taste within a circumscribed pool of films that have achieved theatrical distribution in the last year. In contrast to the diverse festival fare to which I am accustomed, having to narrow my choices down to so-called American “prestige” films feels a bit like a Faustian bargain where I sell my cinephilic soul to the big studios who line up critic circles like dominos. There’s not many ways to fall in this colonized symbiosis. It sometimes feels like a rigged game with obvious results, accounting—no doubt—for the repetitive lists that dominate the ramp-up to awards season. As evidence, check out Mike D’Angelo’s sobering list of the theatrically released films of 2014 to note our starting line and the limited victories of this race. Granted, any other system might prove to be a chaotic free-for-all.

Notwithstanding my reservations, “in every job that must be done there is an element of fun and when you find the fun the job’s a game.” The way this works within SFFCC is that each member is asked to send in a preliminary ballot with five nominations in each category ranked from one to five, with the first choice scoring five points down to the last choice scoring one. Once all the preliminary ballots are submitted, we are then offered a secondary ballot shaped by the tabulated results. Knowing in advance that this secondary ballot will invariably produce the names produced by every other critics circle in the country—lining up the dominos “just so”—leaves me free to use my preliminary ballot to texture my complicity by including choices that I know don’t have a cold chance in Hell, specifically those films outside the grip of Hollywood’s hegemony and the inner circles of American independents (hegemony "light"). Need I argue that this is why I’m a festival correspondent in the first place?

So—to provide a bit of transparency to the process—what follows is my preliminary ballot, which will be followed by my secondary ballot, and SFFCC’s official announcement come Sunday. I will not include, however, information regarding our Special Citation award and Marlon Riggs award.

BEST ACTOR

1. Michael Keaton, Birdman. I admire how SFFCC colleague Omar Moore described Keaton’s performance as “three performances in one”, at least one of which wryly comments upon Keaton’s one-off 1989 portrayal of Batman.

2. Tom Hardy, Locke & The Drop. In the same vein, I first became aware of Hardy’s work as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), though he was hardly recognizable. In these two performances this year Hardy has revealed himself to be an accomplished actor capable of holding his own without a mask and someone to keep our eyes on in scripts to come.

3. Sid Lucero, Norte: The End of History. As a Filipino actor, Lucero won’t receive much love from American enthusiasts, but his savage performance as a man ravaged by guilt was one of the most heartbreaking and shocking of the year.

4. Adam Bakri, Omar. In this breakout performance, Bakri won’t blip on many American radars, especially with this pro-Palestinian turn nested within a love story. More will be made of the problematic mentorship in Foxcatcher than the one on display here between a Palestinian youth coerced by an Israeli security officer.

5. David Oyelowo, Selma. Less an impersonation than an admirable embodiment of Dr. Martin Luther King, this is the role Oyelowo was born to play and he does a damn fine job with it.

Hon. Mention: Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man. This role showed Hoffman at the peak of his game and underscores our loss; but—because I prefer to give awards to the living—I include him here by mention and not nomination.

BEST ACTRESS

1. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night & The Immigrant. Since her breakout performance as Edith Piaf, Cotillard has proven herself again and again to be one of our greatest actresses, this year with two roles characterized by political nuance and charismatic presence.

2. Anne Dorval, Mommy. Dorval reins excess better than almost any actress I know; a necessity for Xavier Dolan’s aggressive, often over-the-top scripts. As a mother with a problem child, she exhibits love and fear in equal measure.

3. Isabelle Huppert, Abuse of Weakness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, all Huppert has to do is lift an eyebrow and she pierces me to the marrow. Here she stands in as the alter-ego for Catherine Breillat’s steely reserve struggling against physical odds.

4. Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria. Another performance where an actor seems to play more than one role within a role. First as a glamorous red carpet darling who, secondly, becomes masculinized in her search for a character. The gendered range is amazing.

5. Paulina García, Gloria. As a middle-aged woman refusing to give up her embodied sensuality, García’s performance at first feels feminist but then deepens to something unrelentingly humanist.

Note: American actresses, work harder! If Hollywood is going to weaken you in predictable roles, then seek work out of the country.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

1. Edward Norton, Birdman. As a foil to Keaton’s scene-stealing dominance, Norton handles his own with wit and physicality.

2. Tom Wilkinson, Selma. It takes quite a lot for me to like former President Lyndon Baines Johnson in any characterization and yet Wilkinson does a masterful job of eliciting sympathy and humanizing the former President's difficult, compromised, choices.

3. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood. A consistently good if rarely recognized actor, this is the best thing I’ve seen out of Hawke in a performance shaped over 12 years. Talk about focus and commitment!

4. Waleed Zuaiter, Omar. You might not be able to call him evil, but Zuaiter’s handsome looks and charismatic smile sensualize and complicate his role as an antagonist in this Mideast narrative.

5. Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher. Tatum elevates his boilerplate performances as a sensitive hunk to effective levels of nuance as the luggish and vulnerable wrestler who falls prey to the manipulations of a mentally unbalanced tycoon.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer & The Grand Budapest Hotel. In two distinct caricatures of entitlement, Swinton excels as the mouthpiece for the 1% while resoundly skewering same.

2. Emma Stone, Birdman. With doe-eyed cynicism, Stone gives voice to a skeptical younger generation formed and informed by social media at odds with the old-fashioned integrity and artistic aspirations of her father.

3. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods. Streep colors her impressive vocal skills with now legendary acting chops to provide the center of this prize piece of American musical theater. Your heart feels for this witch weary of the world and its betrayals.

4. Kristen Stewart, Still Alice & Clouds of Sils Maria. Rebounding from being pigeonholed in the Twilight franchise, Stewart proves that—cast in the right roles—she can deliver low-stated, naturalistic performances. Who would have thought? What a welcome surprise.

5. Sandrine Kiberlain, Violette. Crisp, aloof, and stiffened with intellect, Kiberlain brings Simone du Beauvoir to life, not only as an intellectual giant, but as the reluctant beloved of Violette le Duc.

BEST SCREENPLAY, Original

1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
3. Oleg Negin & Andreyi Zvyagintsev, Leviathan
4. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
5. Steven Knight, Locke

BEST SCREENPLAY, Adapted

1. Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man
2. Dennis Lehane, The Drop
3. Joon-ho Bong & Kelly Masterson, Snowpiercer
4. Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice
5. James Lapine & Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

1. Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal, Ida
2. Lyle Vincent, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
3. Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
4. Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
5. Fredrik Wenzel, Force Majeure

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

1. Kevin Thompson, Birdman
2. Sergio de la Vega, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
3. Suzie Davies, Mr. Turner
4. Adam Stockhausen, The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. Dennis Gassner & Anna Pinnock, Into the Woods

BEST EDITING

1. Sandra Adair, Boyhood
2. Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione, Birdman
3. John Gregory, Mr. Turner
4. Justine Wright, Locke
5. Ron Patane, A Most Violent Year

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

1. Ari Folman, The Congress
2. Signe Baumane, Rocks in My Pockets
3.
4.
5.

Note: The weakest category this year. I was stumped.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE

1. Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan. This is grave and elegant cinema richly textured with literary flourishes. Eschewing melodramatic formulas, it narrates a realistic tale of individuals crushed by systematic corruption.

2. Lav Diaz, Norte, the End of History. Astounding in its portrayal of how a man can go crazy with the loneliness of guilt, Diaz’s take on Dostoevysky’s Crime and Punishment runs neck and neck with Leviathan for narrative heft and characterization.

3. Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida. Beautifully lensed, truthfully performed, Pawlikowski creates a road movie intent upon coming to terms with a difficult history.

4. Hany Abu-Assad, Omar. Watching Adam Bakri’s character scale Israel’s Apartheid Wall visualizes the resiliency of the Palestinian spirit and the complicities necessary to achieve independence.

5. Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure. A black comedy as it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman, if Bergman had a sense of humor.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

1. Laura Poitras, CitizenFour. This is filmmaking at its very best, relevant, informative and deeply disturbing. So good that I have to also nominate it for Best Picture.

2. John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier. A career is saved from a clutch of cardboard boxes. A fascinating story that profiles a remarkable body of street photography.

3. Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine, The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. I was personally disappointed that this did not make the Oscars® short list because I found it to be an inventive documentary hybrid that testifies that all conflicts come down to one person against another, even on different sides of a remote island.

4. Rodrigo H. Vila, Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America. With a limited run in New York City, this portrait of famed folk singer Mercedes Sosa is not getting the love it deserves. At a time when most Americans lack political will, this document could prove as inspiring as nueva canción was for the social upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s in Portugal, Spain and Latin America. Who do we have these days to sing songs of resistance?

5. Ben Cotner & Ryan White, The Case Against 8. It was a brave gamble to chronicle this Supreme Court fight for gay marriage as it, arguably, could have gone either way. As such, its victory is doubly sweet and gratifying to watch.

Note: I won’t name names, but I overheard one of my SFFCC colleagues at a press screening complain about having to vote in such “uninteresting” categories as foreign film and documentary. I felt my blood rise and then settle back down as I mollified myself with my mantras: “They’re only movies” and “There’s no accounting for taste.”

Fortunately, this year has seen an amazing variety in both genres available for nomination and, for me, these were the two most difficult (let alone interesting) categories to negotiate. It frustrates me when members of SFFCC reveal that all they want to play is a game of dominos. For every nomination in this category, I had an equal choice. An honorable mention needs to go out to Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam which humanely expands the history of the evacuation of Saigon as we know it and Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture which reconstructs the historic atrocities within Cambodia out of its own earth. Also, in tandem with The Case Against 8 and its chronicle of the triumphant Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, I’d like to give an honorable mention to Michael Gough’s Add the Words, a documentary out of Idaho—completely out of the Circle’s circumscribed selection for still being on festival track and not yet in theaters—but important for reminding audiences that, despite gains on the federal level, LGBT communities are still struggling for basic human rights in such red states as Idaho. What good does it do to be married if said marriage means you might lose both job and home? An unnerving catch-22 in civil rights.

BEST DIRECTOR

1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
3. Laura Poitras, CitizenFour
4. Andreyi Zvyagintsev, Leviathan
5. Ava Duvernay, Selma

BEST PICTURE

1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
3. Laura Poitras, CitizenFour
4. Andreyi Zvyagintsev, Leviathan
5. Ava Duvernay, Selma

Note: Not necessarily a candidate for Best Picture but an honorable mention to Stanley Nelson's documentary Freedom Summer, which tracks with the concerns of Selma.  Both films revisit a historical moment in voter registration rights now currently under attack by the Republican Right.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

HOLEHEAD 2014—BLOOD RIDERS: THE DEVIL RIDES WITH US (2014)

I met Finnish director Lari Teräs a little over a month back in Boise, Idaho at Red Feather's patio where we watched Boise Film Underground's Halloween program of horror shorts. We'd met earlier in the evening at Ming Studios where I learned his first feature Blood Riders: The Devil Rides With Us (2014) [Official site / Facebook] was in the program for the Idaho Horror Film Festival. Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to stay up past midnight (and was none too pleased with the unprofessional projections at the festival anyway) so I begged off on an in-cinema screening and asked Lari to forward a Vimeo link, which he generously provided a few weeks later.

His lack of pretension was refreshing. He was visibly enjoying the festival run of his first feature, which he described as: "a blood soaked adventure comedy about four young friends who stumble upon a body after stealing a car. That discovery pushes the friends on a road trip around town during which they try to get rid of the increasing amount of corpses. Along their wild ride the kids encounter neo-Nazis, punk artists, devil worshipers and a plan to resurrect Hitler."

Made on a next-to-nothing budget, Teräs pieced Blood Riders together with personal savings and credit cards and—"to keep things simple"—there's "only" 24 speaking roles and "only" 20 shooting location across 7 cities / towns. Working as a best boy grip and background zombie on John Geddes' Exit Humanity (2011) was where Teräs learned most of the tips and tricks of how feature films are shot after graduating from film school. An undeniable labor of love for everyone involved, Blood Riders was shot in 3 weeks (6 days per week; 14-16 hours per day). By huff and by puff and, definitely, with a lot of fun they made the film. That fun, and the lack of pretension, translates across and makes Blood Rider nothing more than what it is: an entertaining romp of blood, guts and good times.

The no-budget bloody mayhem of Blood Riders lies squarely on the shoulders of the earnest performances of its fresh-faced cast. As Zoey, Caitlynne Medrek bemuses as a lass with impulse control problems (and rumor has it her face was sprayed with blood over 60 times on camera); as Janek, Cory Lof provides an attractive and befuddled protagonist barely able to keep things together; and as Dane, Joel Ballanger is as dreamy as a bad boy gets. All three are easy on the eyes so I have to give a shout-out to either casting or Lari's good taste in friends (one and the same?). I predict Ballanger will need a secretary for his future fan club.

With humor being the festival's main draw this edition, Blood Riders races out ahead of the pack by a bloody nose. It is, as the director will tell you, "a feel good movie about growing up, making new friends, finding love and overcoming the insecurities of youth: What are you willing to do in order to find acceptance either from yourself or from your peers? It's also a movie about off-the-wall characters, hell fires and the (positive) effects of starting an accidental murder spree in order to cover up a petty crime." All in all, a pretty rad combination.

 

Friday, December 05, 2014

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Unexpectedly beautiful, at turns contemplative and chilling, Ana Lily Amirpour's debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) [Facebook] is being billed as the "first Iranian Vampire Western" and is a text book study of a continuing trend towards elevated genre; i.e., Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008) and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Its eccentricity (a chador-clad vampire skateboards around Bad City late at night preying on the blood of its immoral denizens) is redeemed by suspense-drenched atmosphere and—as my friend Frako Loden puts it—a moral center. At The East Bay Express, Kelly Vance concurs: "Filmmaker Amirpour imbues the simple story with a European tone of subdued dread reminiscent of Alain Robbe-Grillet (his L'Immortelle particularly)." But let's not forget the film's mordant wit and—against all odds—a romance at the film's heart.

Lyle Vincent's B&W cinematography incorporates a palette of warm greys and horizontal lens flares that are simply stunning to look at, lending significant (if sometimes self-conscious) style to Sergio De La Vega's evocative production design.

A youthful rock score insures this is a vampire film for a contemporary audience. At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd von Hoeij spotlights the film's soundtrack "ranging from the Middle Eastern fusion beats of Bei Ru to the underground Iranian rock of Radio Tehran and Kiosk to the spaghetti western-inspired tunes of Portland-based Federale." Fans of the soundtrack will be pleased by its upcoming release by Death Waltz Recording Company.

Amirpour, one of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film" and a consensually designated "Breakthrough Director of the Year" according to IndieWire's Playlist, Moviemaker, and the Gotham Awards, was interviewed early on by Brownbook. Melissa Leon interviewed Amirpour for The Daily Beast and Steven Erickson did the honors for Fandor, where David Hudson has likewise aggregated reviews from the film's Sundance premiere and its New Directors / New Films run.

With an Independent Spirit nomination for best first feature, I've no doubt that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a film that will be hypnotizing audiences during its Bay Area Landmark Theatres run.

 

SPRING GARDEN (2014)

In full disclosure, Jake Fullilove's Spring Garden (2014) is a pet project of mine. It first arrived at my desk as a shooting script developed by Jake and his collaborator Matt Shelar, adapted from Matt's short story. Straight off, it exhibited a pulpy coherence that spoke to the project's genre ambitions.

My creative presence in Boise, Idaho is mitigated by my age, in that most of Boise's film scene is built upon the momentum of its youthful production crews who—eager to have me write about their projects or contribute financially to their crowd funding campaigns—rarely invite me to participate. That makes some sense in that I'm not really trained in film production, geared more towards exhibition, and normally approach films after the fact when they're on circuit; but, Jake—aware of this sensitive disconnect—made a point of approaching me to ask for my participation in helping him achieve his dream of making his first feature short. Most of the entry level slots on his production crew were already assigned, but I offered to help out where I knew I could: fixing food for the cast and crew for three days of their shoot. It was my first catering gig ever and I'm proud to say it might earn me an IMDb credit. Feeding the team also afforded the opportunity to watch a film being made and to witness Jake's generous and temperate on-set sensibility. Everyone on the set was clearly having a fun and rewarding experience and this had everything to do with Jake's genuine appreciation for each and every aspect of participation provided by his cast and crew.

Saturday evening marks—not necessarily the premiere of the film—but, it's first screening to said cast and crew who will be gathering for a private viewing at Ming Studios—Boise's premiere international art space—and I wanted to take time to congratulate everyone involved on what I consider the unquestioned success of the project and what I hope will be a robust festival run. My only regret is not being present to follow through with a killer grazing table.

With his first feature short, Jake Fullilove reveals himself as a talent to be reckoned with. Visual ingenuity, a strong sense of editorial rhythm, and solid professional marks all the way throughout spotlight Matt Shelar's well-spun psychological thriller. Crisp lensing by Skip Armstrong on the RED scarlet and RED Epic X, state-of-the-art special effects by Dustin Montierth, and an effectively tense and suspenseful sound design by Daniel Kerr frame the sparring performances of David Cowan and Jem Wierenga. For his first narrative short, Jake Fullilove and his collaborators have achieved a disquieting tale of murder and mayhem in the vein of Dexter. The film's final dream sequence (shot in the Boise Co-Op), with its impressive tracking shot, deserves a singular shout-out.

Of related interest: Chris Grapes' profile of the project at Boise Weekly; Frankie Barnhill's spotlight on Jake at Boise State Public Radio; and Pamela Kleibrink Thompson's article at Eagle Magazine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HOLEHEAD 2014—BLOODY KNUCKLES (2014)

It's difficult not to get heavy-handed with the puns when writing about Matt O'Mahoney's debut feature Bloody Knuckles (2014) [IMDb / Facebook], which boasted its world premiere at Fantasia in their newly-launched Underground sidebar. Bloody Knuckles has since gained fans at a handful of genre festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Did I mention it was shot digitally?

Bloody Knuckles arrives to San Francisco as the first of three opening night entries for the 11th edition of IndieFest's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival (Holehead). With an indirect tip of the hat to San Francisco's Chinatown, Bloody Knuckles reveals an '80s VHS horror aesthetic with low-budget production, a clever use of practical gore effects, and politically incorrect comedy ameliorated by foxy, sympathetic lead actor Adam Boys (who plays Travis, the creator of Vulgarian Invasions, an underground comic that gleefully wallows in the obscene) and his winsome love interest Amy (Gabrielle Giraud).

Angered by the Canadian debates about self-censorship in the wake of the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, O'Mahoney vented his frustration by reminding folks that people fought really hard for their right to freedom of speech and that buckling to threats sets a terrible precedent. In Bloody Knuckles he aims offense at Asians, Blacks, and Gays in equal measure. Contingent upon your perspectives on subcultural stereotypes, you'll either wink, wince, or walk out; but, you'll have to give a hand to O'Mahoney's deft balancing act that softens equal opportunity offense with the effective distraction of mayhem, carnage and humor. A special shout-out to the use of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" over the closing credits as an especially wry (and classy) touch.



As synopsized by Holehead: "Casually dismissing his detractors as pious censors, Travis finds himself in dangerous territory after his comic targets a shady Chinatown businessman named Leonard Fong. Mr. Fong does not take kindly to the offensive caricature of him and orders his goons to punish Travis by severing his drawing hand. Rattled to his core, Travis abandons his comic and retreats into a miserable, alcoholic existence. That is, until his hand returns from the grave. The hand urges Travis to resume Vulgarian Invasions but Travis refuses, fearing a deadly reprisal. The hand, however, will not relent and embarks on a perverse, by-any-means-necessary mission to rejuvenate Travis' once bold spirit."

Marina Antunes interviewed O'Mahoney for Quiet Earth, after stating in her review for the film: "Ever wonder what would happen if Thing dragged one of the Addams kids through a seedy underworld of dirty comics, contraband pesticides and underground sex clubs? That's kind of what Bloody Knuckles is about." O'Mahoney offers further commentary in his Fantasia video interview. At least one thumb up for an offensive but fun entry at this year's Holehead.