SFIFF in Review: Roger Ebert, James Schamus, and Other Highlights

by Jason LeRoy on May 7, 2010

The 53rd annual San Francisco International Film Festival concluded last night, thus ending this year’s edition of one of our fair cities’ most enduring and enriching cinematic traditions. After the jump, I’ll recap some of the festival’s highlights, ranging from Serge Gainsbourg lookalikes and Tilda Swinton speaking Italian, to James Schamus dismissing Brokeback Mountain enthusiasts and Jason Reitman teaching Terry Zwigoff how to be a douchebag.

Gainsbourg (Je t’aime…moi non plus)

[French title: Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)]

A scene from Joann Sfar's GAINSBOURG (JE T'AIME . . . MOI NON PLUS), playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

We aren’t allowed to run a full review of this film yet, so I’ll keep this quick. Gainsbourg tells the story of French pop legend Serge Gainsbourg and his lifelong struggles with women, his ego, and his national identity. While his story is told in a fairly straightforward and chronological narrative, it is invested with an invaluable and unforgettable visual flair by director Joann Sfar, who has a background in graphic novels.

The acting is consistently remarkable, particularly from Eric Elmosnino, who has already garnered a Best Actor prize from the Tribeca Film Festival for his uncanny portrayal of Gainsbourg. British actress Lucy Gordon’s heartfelt performance as Jane Birkin is rendered all the more poignant by the reality of Gordon’s tragic suicide late last year. Supermodel Laetitia Casta is suitably bubbly and flirtatious as Brigitte Bardot. Anna Mouglalis (also at SFIFF as Coco Chanel in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky) is luminous perfection as Juliette Gréco, and Sara Forestier is perversely perky as France Gall.

Gainsbourg is one of the better biopics in recent memory, and an absolute must for Serge Gainsbourg fans. Look for it when it gets a wider domestic release later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Elmosnino finds himself making Oscar shortlists.

I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)

A scene from Luca Guadagnino's I AM LOVE featuring Tilda Swinton, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

We’re not allowed to review this one either, so once again, forgive my brevity. First of all, I was absolutely stunned by the turnout for this movie. Granted, I was stunned by the turnout for pretty much everything. I mean seriously, who the hell are all these people? Where do they come from? The first film I saw at SFIFF this year was Rejoice and Shout, a documentary about gospel music, on a Saturday afternoon. And it was a full house.

But nowhere near as insane as the line for I Am Love. It only had one screening (which was probably part of the problem), on a Sunday afternoon at the Castro. And I’m pretty sure it actually sold out. Like, the entire Castro, balcony and all, was overrun by crazed Tilda Swinton fans. 1,400 Tilda-loving asses in 1,400 Tilda-besotted seats. Swinton had originally been scheduled to appear at the film, but had to cancel due to a scheduling conflict; this is perhaps for the best, as I fear she’d have been torn from limb to lily-white limb.

So here’s something to know about I Am Love: it’s in Italian. Like, the entire thing. Don’t let its English-speaking star fool you — all of Swinton’s dialog is in Italian. She plays Emma Recchi, a Russian woman who has acclimated herself to the role of Italian socialite, mother, and wife to a wealthy textile magnate (Pippo Delbono). Her life is a beacon of privilege and comfort — the Recchis live in an appallingly beautiful Milan mansion with a full staff of dedicated, affectionate servants. With the exception of a nasty streak of patriarchy courtesy of Emma’s father-in-law (Gabriele Ferzetti) that may be trickling down to her husband, all is serene and placid in Emma’s world.

Until the day Emma’s daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacker), comes out to her as a lesbian having a passionate love affair with a woman at her college. Rather than fear or apprehension, Emma responds to this with deep appreciation and something approaching awe. She is inspired by her daughter’s courage to follow love wherever it takes her. And soon enough, she begins falling into an affair of her own — with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a handsome countryside chef who happens to be the best friend of her son (Flavio Parenti).

This rapturously photographed, extravagantly scored melodrama moves along languidly and warmly as it gradually builds to its operatic crescendo. Swinton, as always, is a revelation. Pay attention to the transformation her character experiences, both physically and emotionally, over the course of the film. I Am Love is currently scheduled to enter limited release in the U.S. on June 18.

An Afternoon with James Schamus

w/ Ride with the Devil: The Director’s Cut

James Schamus in conversation with B. Ruby Rich while accepting the Kanbar Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

James Schamus is my new hero. The Berkeley graduate was fast, funny, and almost shamefully intelligent during his endlessly entertaining conversation with distinguished author and UC Santa Cruz professor B. Ruby Rich, accompanied by a screening of the newly restored director’s cut of Ang Lee’s Schamus-scripted Ride with the Devil.

If you’re not familiar with Schamus, you’re almost certainly familiar with his body of work: in addition to founding Focus Films ten years ago, he was also a seminal figure in the early ’90s NYC independent film scene, working alongside such luminaries as Christine Vachon and Ted Hope to finance films like Poison, Swoon, In the Soup, Safe, and Happiness, among others. He has also been the screenwriter for nine of Ang Lee’s films, including The Ice Storm Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Lust, Caution (for which he was nominated for an Adapted Screenplay Oscar).

However, Schamus is perhaps best-known as the would-be Best Picture-wining producer of Brokeback Mountain (fuck you, Crash), a topic he is perhaps not especially fond of discussing. When an audience member made the ill-advised decision to (over)share about how Brokeback changed her life during the audience Q&A (sidebar: WHY DO PROGRAMMERS THINK AN AUDIENCE Q&A IS A GOOD IDEA??? BECAUSE IT NEVER IS!!!), Schamus dismissed her testimony with a wave of his hand and a justifiably weary, “I tend to dissociate from all that stuff.” But he still favored the audience with the story of how he’d unsuccessfully tried to get Brokeback made for many years as a producer, but it wasn’t until he’d started Focus Features that he realized, “Hey, I’m on this side of the desk now! Let’s get this made.” Which: what an amazing thing to be able to say.

After Schamus and Rich’s delightful conversation came to an end, we settled in for a screening of Ang Lee’s original director’s cut of Ride with the Devil, which had been edited for length by Universal when they botched its release back in 1999 (also, Schamus noted that every film Focus Features has released has been the “director’s cut,” because they’ve never asked a director to make a cut, which: awesome).

It’s recently been released in its unexpurgated version on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, but it was especially amazing to watch this staggering Civil War epic unfold on the big screen as Lee originally intended it. Seeing it now, I would say without hesitation that it stands toe-to-toe with the greatest of Civil War films.

While the film drew mixed reactions upon its initial release, it is genuinely improved by the restored footage. The film moves quite quickly for a nearly three-hour war drama, and is never less than riveting. It is also violent in a way few films are anymore; each act of murderous violence genuinely pierces the viewer, weighted by the mortality of the character whose life has just been senselessly stolen.

The acting is top-notch across the board. This is truly one of Tobey Maguire’s finest, most underrated performances. He is joined by the likes of Skeet Ulrich (in perhaps his last hurrah before his recent career rejuvenation via Jericho), Jeffrey Wright (brilliant as ever), James Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (terrifying), Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis (R.I.P.), Celia Weston, Mark Ruffalo, Margo Martindale, Tom Wilkinson, and perhaps most notoriously, Jewel Kilcher. Jewel, in her only big-screen role, plays Sue Lee Shelley, a flirtatious yet cynical and war-numbed young widow. And she’s perfectly fine, thank you very much.

Ride with the Devil exemplifies the same meticulous attention to emotional and visual detail as all Lee’s best films. Do yourself a favor and check out the Criterion edition.

An Evening with Roger Ebert & Friends

w/ Julia

left to right: Terry Zwigoff, Jason Reitman, Roger Ebert, Philip Kaufman, and Errol Morris. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

What an amazing night for an amazing man. Roger Ebert was this year’s recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award, and he was feted by four incredibly distinguished directors: Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), and Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

Ebert and his gracious wife, Chaz, were seated onstage at the Castro while each director took his turn at the podium, doing their best to adequately describe Ebert’s inconceivably rich contributions to cinema over the course of his 40+ years as a film critic. Zwigoff started things in a predictably anxious and misanthropic manner, complaining about the stage’s poor lighting while voicing his deep discomfort with Ebert’s sacred belief in watching movies as a communal experience in a crowded theater; especially comedies, as Zwigoff usually can’t understand why people are laughing.

This unfortunately set up Jason Reitman, whose films I adore and who I generally view as our generation’s Frank Capra, to publicly identify himself as a douchebag. As soon as he took the stage, he began addressing Zwigoff in the audience and his dislike of watching comedies in crowded theaters. First of all, even the people in the balcony could sense Zwigoff withering under the attention of being robustly addressed from the stage by Jason Reitman in a sold-out theater. And then, Reitman said this:

“Terry, when you’re stuck at a comedy and you don’t know why people are laughing, here’s what you do. See, whenever my wife drags me to some awful romantic comedy, and everyone’s laughing at something that just isn’t funny, what I do is laugh ten times as loud as them, and then say out loud whatever just happened. Like this: HA HA HA! HE’S AT THE FRONT DOOR! AND SHE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW HE’S THERE! OH MY GOD! THAT IS PRICELESS! That usually does the trick.”

So, yeah. Jason Reitman is THAT douchebag. The one you thought you’d left behind in high school. But a great director all the same.

After a very touching and teary-eyed tribute from Philip Kaufman, Ebert addressed the crowd using his computer voice via a laptop. It was a wonderful moment, with Ebert emphatically gesturing along and mouthing the words to his speech. Can I just say that even without (and perhaps because of) his inability to physically speak, Ebert is a hilariously entertaining stage presence? Throughout the evening, he repeatedly stole the spotlight away from the directors by making the most ridiculously amusing gestures and facial expressions while they spoke. It may seem a bit late in life to become a master of physical comedy, but Ebert has never been one to bow to limitations.

Following his speech, we all settled in for a screening of Erick Zonka’s masterfully original and surprising kidnapping noir, Julia, with yet another mind-blowing performance by Tilda Swinton. The film was personally chosen by Ebert to screen at his tribute, which is an incredible honor. It was also the perfect example of Ebert’s career-long commitment to championing little-seen films and using his influence to draw attention to them.

Furthermore, it really illustrated Ebert’s belief in the power of watching movies when surrounded by other people. I had first watched Julia on DVD by myself several months prior, and my experience of it was completely different. I thought it was a bizarre, unsettling, messy crime caper that reminded me of Weeds‘ fourth season. I certainly didn’t find it funny.

But then, watching it in a sold-out movie house packed with film fans having just been commissioned by the great Roger Ebert to bask in this experience, the film came to life in a genuinely transcendent way. The film’s every jarring twist and turn was felt palpably in the audience’s reactions. And also: Julia is hilarious! There is so much humor in Swinton’s performance that I’d never noticed watching it on a TV by myself. The big screen and the big crowd really did make all the difference.

Unsurprisingly, Ebert was proven right. It was the perfect conclusion to a remarkable evening spotlighting what the SFIFF is all about: loving, watching, and celebrating movies.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Frida December 12, 2010 at 11:32 pm

i’ll make sure to check some of these out. great article.

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