SF Filmfest's faves

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday April 4, 2023
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'Dalíland,' 'Being Mary Tyler Moore,' 'Stephen Curry: Underrated,' <br>and 'Peafowl' at the 66th San Francisco International Film Festival.
'Dalíland,' 'Being Mary Tyler Moore,' 'Stephen Curry: Underrated,'
and 'Peafowl' at the 66th San Francisco International Film Festival.

In announcing the full lineup for the 66th San Francisco International Film Festival the longest-running film festival in the Americas, which runs from April 13-23, Jesse Fairbanks, SFFILM's Director of Programming noted, "This year's program includes a wealth of Bay Area filmmakers across all sections. Our curatorial team, dedicated to showcasing evocative stories, prioritized films that unite us all through cinematic expression and outstanding narrative craft."

Stories from 37 countries will be featured. For the third year in a row, half of the lineup will be helmed by female or nonbinary filmmakers. Anne Lai, Executive Director of SFFILM, commented that for the first time, the Festival hub will be at the CGV San Francisco, in addition to the other SF locations, The Castro Theater and The Dolby Theater as well as some East Bay venues.

Barbara Sukowa and Ben Kingsley in 'Dalíland'  

As usual, SFFILM features several films of LGBTQ-related interest. "Dalíland" is the homecoming of female director Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol," "American Psycho") after a four-year absence and a return to her original subject of the New York art world in the 1970s.

Purportedly focusing on Spanish surreal artist Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley), the film is a coming-of-age saga about his assistant James (Christopher Briney) helping him prepare for an art gallery opening in which Dalí must provide more paintings. This period occurred towards the end of his career, with Dalí a creative shadow of what he once was.

Dalí was one of the first performance artists, a master of publicity for himself, aided by his narcissistic and money-hungry wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa), who wanting to continue their lavish lifestyle (full of parties and drugs) has Dalí sign secondhand lithographs they sell to unsuspecting collectors. Their dysfunctional marriage is a sham, yet they need each other, he providing the fame and she engineering their finances.

There are flashbacks on how the couple met in Spain. They have an open relationship with bisexual Dalí (whose sexuality is rooted mostly in voyeurism) entranced by his transgender muse Amanda Lear and Gala infatuated by a much younger musician starring as Jesus in the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." Both Dalí and Gala come off as caricatures yet it works because these two great actors make this codependent, combative relationship work.

The James character acts as a go-between, initially besotted by Dali's "genius" but whose naiveté is replaced by a truer picture of who the real Dalí is. James' loss of innocence is not as intriguing as the Dalí/Gala antics. Still, the film captures the haphazard corrupted zaniness of 1970s New York and the pitfalls of celebrity. A tribute to Harron will precede "Daliland's" screening.

'Being Mary Tyler Moore'  

Fans of Mary Tyler Moore are in for a treat with director James Adolphus' and producer Lena Waithe's terrific HBO documentary, "Being Mary Tyler Moore." The film serves as both a biography but also underscores the cultural impact of her brilliant career, making a strong argument that she helped define a new understanding of American womanhood, especially single women.

While there are plenty of archival footage and video clips from her groundbreaking roles as Laura Petrie in "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and Mary Richards in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Moore is her own narrator through the many interviews and talk show appearances she made in her almost 60-year career. Also included are audio-only comments and reminiscences of colleagues, family, fellow actors, but only to buttress what Moore says.

Nicknamed early in her career as the Ice Princess, the film relates how through therapy and recovery, she became a warmer, more approachable person who accepted her imperfections. She was a complex, contradictory woman, a feminist icon who didn't always embrace the feminist label, but championed strong independent career-minded women. Moore had to fight her demons to become the person she wanted to be and in the end found happiness. The film is an inspirational high point in this year's festival.

We return to the 1970s again, only this time Rome in Emanuele Crialese's French-Italian drama "L'Immensitá" starring the radiant, incomparable Penelope Cruz at the peak of her craft. She plays Clara, an unhappily married mother with mental health issues, raising three kids and shakily tolerating her husband's infidelities. Her eldest daughter, Adri/Adriana (Luana Giuliani, excellent) is experiencing gender dysphoria (though that term didn't exist at that time) and wants to be called Andrew.

The whole family is dysfunctional with Adri's brother Gino, bulimic and habitually taking a dump in the closet. Her father is totally resistant to his transgender child. Adri becomes infatuated with an outcast Roma teen named Sara who accepts Adri as a boy. Crialese unites both mother and trans Adri as outsiders. The film mostly succeeds though there is a pervading aura of sadness.

What doesn't work are several nostalgic surreal musical sequences despite Cruz's capable singing, which add nothing to the narrative and wind up stalling the action. Crialese at the movie's press conference came out publicly as a trans man, and said his own dysphoria was the inspiration for the Adri character.

"Pete" is a delightful animated short film about eight-year-old Pete, having been born Kathy, who is determined to play Little League baseball with her friends. When the crowd realizes Pete isn't another boy, trouble ensues.

Queer director Bret Parker, who worked at Pixar for 26 years, bases the story on her wife Pete Barma. "The world may not be ready for me to be Pete, but I didn't know how to be anything else...It's a funny thing about change, not everyone is always ready for it, but those who are often become unexpected heroes," such as Pete's supportive mother. An enchanting teaching parable about how change and acceptance is possible, this is a much-needed reminder with all the anti-trans legislation pervading the U.S.

"Joan Baez I Am a Noise" is a bittersweet documentary on the 20th century's foremost female folk music singer. While looking back on her 60-year career and activism (civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, and promoting social justice movements throughout the world), it focuses on her final 2018/2019 Fare Thee Well Tour.

Deciding her vocal range had become too limited, she retired after the final LA concert. But the film is really the now 82-year-old artist opening up and reviewing her life personally, making peace with her past. There are revelations of a life-long battle with panic attacks manifesting itself in crippling stomach aches and decades of therapy, rivalry with her younger sister Mimi, her inability to deal with fame at a young age, her eight-year reliance on quaaludes in the 1970s to cope with her anxiety, and her addiction to activism and desire to help save the world resulting in never-ending musical tours.

However, the biggest shock is her confession that she was probably sexually abused by her physicist father as was Mimi. She does talk about her eight-year relationship with a woman in the 1960s and the failure of her marriage to activist David Harris ("he was too young and I was too crazy").

Overall she claims she's not good with relationships and is satisfied living alone in her Woodside estate. Her son Gabriel ("She wasn't a great Mom because she was always away on the road") plays percussion in her band. The documentary uses archival footage such as cassette tapes of her therapy sessions, handwritten letters, and drawings illustrating her moods.

Overall, this is an honest but tender portrait of a now content, warmer woman who says these are the happiest years of her life. This candid documentary now becomes essential source material for any future analysis of her bio and artistry.

One of the first black supermodels is finally getting due recognition in the documentary "Invisible Beauty," on how outspoken activist Bethann Hardison emerged in the 1970s, mentoring such new talent as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. Never content with the status quo, Hardison pushed for dialogue on representation and discussed race and diversity years before those issues were part of the cultural conversation. Hardison co-directs along with gay fashion documentarian Frederic Tcheng ("Halston") to tell her astonishing life story "with lively commentary and salacious behind-the-scenes observations of the fashion elite."

The South Korean narrative "Peafowl" concerns trans woman Myung, who returns to her hometown to lead her father's funeral ritual decades after leaving due to transphobia. Now a professional Waack dancer, she wants to use her inheritance to fund her transition. She also aids her cousin in coming out as he contends with his homophobic parent. This is an exciting debut from director Byun Sung-bin from a country where homosexuality remains a taboo in society. Though same-sex activity is legal, there's no marriage or civil partnerships for same-sex couples, nor anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

Rose Pak documentary 'Rally'  

Beloved and divisive SF power broker Rose Pak, who brought Chinese-American issues to the forefront, is the star of the documentary "Rally." While beginning as a journalist and activist, it was her collaborations with Mayors Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Ed Lee where she gained her policy-making influence. We witness her fight for the building of the city's Central Subway (which just opened in January) as well as her unsuccessful struggle against the closure of the Embarcadero Freeway. Despite all her controversies, she was a distinctive Bay Area mover and shaker, and only now after her death can we appreciate the difficulties she encountered as an immigrant from China trying to get the political establishment to recognize local Asian concerns.

Carmen Madonia has already received rave reviews as Ren, a mid-20s transgender woman who accompanies her family on a vacation in the Canadian-Swiss drama, "Something You Said Last Night," directed by Luis De Filippis in her debut. While Ren is comfortable as trans and has the support of her parents, she's still trying to find her place in the world while staking her independence. The film has been praised for centering on regular family relationships rather than the usual trauma over gender identity. Still, in such close proximity, tensions about family dynamics will arise as "secrets are aired, tears shed, hair braided, and hangovers endured."

Getting lots of local buzz is the new character-driven documentary "Home Is a Hotel," which follows five San Franciscans —with low income or who are trying to stay off the streets — as they live in the cramped, noisy, and sometimes vermin-infested Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels. They fight to stay housed in the most expensive city in the U.S. We watch a single mother looking for her missing daughter, an elderly woman going blind and facing eviction as well as two ex-addicts co-parenting their son. Filmed over five years, the doc looks at inequality in San Francisco and life on the margins. This is billed as a must-watch experience for any resident of this city.

Several other short films are worth noting. Nataly, a trans woman along with her daughter Secreto, visit her ex-lover Leon, who lives in a mysterious community hiding from the sun in the French/Chilean "The Melting Creatures."

"And Then I Was Here" features a genderqueer person in northern California about to become a first-time parent, which includes verité scenes of a high-risk birth.

Experimental filmmaker Julian Felix Anderson, known for his "deliberately disconcerting editing style and disconnected characters," zeroes in on a sleep-deprived teenager facing his insecurities by explaining his outlook on various smells as he discusses his sexuality, self-acceptance, and gender in "The External-Internal Monologue of an Interdependent Insomniac." Good or bad, it only lasts seven minutes.

Finally, a quick mention of two films of local interest. "Stephen Curry: Underrated" is the opening night feature, a documentary on the Golden State Warriors NBA superstar with not only electrifying footage on his court activity, but it also explores his academic ambitions and familial bonds.

"Blackberry" is a narrative film on Canadian company founder Mike Lazaridis (with a winning performance by Jay Baruchel) on the rise and fall of the handheld device sidelined by the iPhone. It's this year's winner of the Sloan Science on Screen Award.


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