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Mostly British Film Festival 2010
Mostly British Film Festival – no subtitles
Ruthe Stein Jan. 31, 2010 Updated: Feb. 9, 2012 12:25 p.m.
I have some notion about what Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney felt when they announced “Let’s put on a show” despite an utter lack of experience. They must have counted on gumption and enthusiasm to carry them through.
That’s what I’ve done since deciding to put on a film festival. I’ve attended them for decades, relishing the opportunity for a first look at “The Lives of Others,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and other movies that would go on to glory. But until recently I’ve given little thought to what it takes to pull together a festival.
The first challenge was finding a niche – no easy task in a region as saturated with film festivals as the Bay Area. World cinema is particularly well covered, not just with French and Italian films but also those from Quebec to Taiwan.
My “Eureka!” moment came upon noticing a glaring omission: Britain. While researching British films, I came across ones from other English-speaking nations and added them to the mix of what could be called the Foreign Film Festival for People Who Don’t Like Subtitles. Officially, it became the Mostly British Film Festival (with a debt to the Mostly Mozart music series).
Finding a theater was a cinch. My friends Jack Bair and Alfonso Felder help operate the Vogue, which was bought by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation two years ago to prevent it from being shuttered. Keeping the Vogue afloat is a labor of love for the two, whose day jobs are senior vice presidents of the San Francisco Giants.
This turned out to be an opportune time to be trawling for celluloid. American distributors shy away from other countries’ movies, believing their appeal is limited. The result is a backlog of terrific films left to languish. Film festivals have become the de facto way for them to be seen across oceans. With DVD releases so sporadic, it could be the only chance to watch them.
A case in point is the current crop of films from Down Under. The number of nominees for an Australian best picture Oscar grew from five to six in recognition of a bonanza of high-quality work. Yet not one nominated picture is scheduled for a theatrical run in the States. Mostly British will screen two of them: “Balibo,” a political thriller starring Anthony LaPaglia, and “Mary and Max,” an animated feature voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Disgrace,” a piercing South African drama with John Malkovich based on the novel by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, popped up on Top 10 lists of Stephen King and New York Times critic Stephen Holden. It played in a handful of American cities but came to San Francisco only as a special screening at the Vogue.
“London River” is another worthy picture that egregiously lacks American distribution. Two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn stars as a distraught mother searching for her missing daughter. An early scene of her looking increasingly anxious with every unanswered ring of her daughter’s phone convinced me this film should open our festival. It’s just what I was looking for: a profoundly moving drama sure to resonate emotionally with audiences. A festival programmer puts his or her taste on the line with an opening film, and I will gladly be judged by “London River.”
Hard to believe that recent work by Peter O’Toole (the Edwardian comedy “Dean Spanley”), Jean Simmons (the comedy “Shadows in the Sun,” marking her return to the screen after 15 years and, sadly, her last film; she died Jan. 22) and Paul Bettany (the atmospheric drama “Broken Lines”) needs a festival to reach an audience.
If movies boasting name actors can’t get distribution, you can imagine what it is like for independent cinema in Britain and elsewhere. Our astute board members discovered small gems such as “Helen,” an eerie drama about a college student asked to play a missing girl in a police re-enactment; “The Jammed,” a social thriller about Melbourne’s sex-slave industry; and “Eamon,” a portrait of a troubled family. The latter is a beneficiary of a new program in which the Irish government subsidizes first-time filmmakers.
To get permission to show these films took dozens of e-mails. My invitation to Simmons to come here with her movie was answered with a very polite “no” by Lindsay Granger – understandable, given Simmons’ illness (lung cancer). Having grown up reading Photoplay in the 1950s, I recognized her as the star’s daughter with Stewart Granger. The most impolite response came from the producer of a high-profile film that premiered at Cannes before falling off the radar. He threatened to sue us and close down our festival if we showed it, when a simple “no” would have sufficed.
Thank goodness for the Edgerton brothers from Australia; actor Joel will be at the festival with his twist-filled noir “The Square.” Nash also will appear and should have some intriguing stories – he was a stuntman on the new “Star Wars” and “Matrix” trilogies.
Striving for the right mix, we chose a comedy for closing night: director Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” a disarming story of a sad-sack postal worker whose life is turned around by real-life soccer great Eric Cantona. “The Secret of Kells” and the Oscar-winning “Peter & the Wolf” – both animated features geared to kids – were naturals for the 11 a.m. slot on Saturday and next Sunday (free to children younger than 12). Less obvious was how to schedule the “Red Riding Trilogy,” a chilling three-part British neo-noir epic based on a real-life investigation into a serial killer. Buoyed by a New York Review of Books article calling the trilogy “better than ‘The Godfather,’ ” we decided to screen the parts back-to-back on Friday, repeating them next Sunday-Feb. 9. (Critic and author David Thomson, who wrote the article, will introduce the trilogy Friday.)
Organizing this festival has taught me a new lingo. I now know what NTSC, PAL and Digi-Beta mean, the difference between plattering and reel-to-reel and that festivals employ a “print traffic manager” to move around 35mm prints.
A pause often follows my request to ship a print to the Giants (where metal canisters, postmarked from around the globe, are piling up in Bair’s office). I asked Charlotte Franklin, print traffic manager for the Palm Springs International Film Festival if she had ever sent a print to a ballpark before.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve shipped to rooms above Israeli gas stations, to an olive farm in Turkey, to a boathouse on the River Thames and to lots and lots of back porches, but never to a ballpark. Yay – something new!”
The Mostly British Film Festival opens Thursday with a party at 4:30 p.m. at Thomas Pink, 255 Post St., and a screening of “London River” at 8 p.m. at the Vogue. The festival continues through Feb. 11 with selected screenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center. For the Vogue, go to www.mostlybritish.org, (415) 346-2288; for the Rafael, www.cafilm.org, (415) 454-1222.
Mostly British and Very Entertaining
Dennis Harvey February 4, 2010
Tragically underrepresented in the Bay Area’s densely packed world of globally oriented film festivals is: the land(s) of our erstwhile colonial rulers! Being English-language, films from the UK and its former colonies do have a leg-up in terms of crashing the U.S. foreign-film market. (Although Canada is the exception. . . ) And those that don’t make it are frequently programmed in the larger festivals like the San Francisco International, Mill Valley and Cinequest.
Still, there’s a fair amount of good work that’s underseen Stateside. Ergo the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation and California Film Institute’s second annual Mostly British Film Festival, which unfolds February 4-11 at S.F.’s Vogue Theatre and Feb. 7-10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
This isn’t a week of Maggie Smith vehicles–it encompasses films from not just from England, but also Ireland, Australia and South Africa. (No, we’re not quite sure how that last got in, either. And no, there’s naught from Scotland or Wales this year.) Not all are brand-new, a handful have even already had Bay Area commercial runs, and there’s a couple famous archival titles. But Mostly Brit’s 32 features run an impressive gamut that demonstrates the variety and vitality of non-U.S. English-language cinema today.
There’s some starry stuff here, starting with opening-nighter London River, an acclaimed drama Brenda Bethlyn as a conservative war widow whose mind gets expanded on a tense trip to modern, multi-cultural London. Anthony LaPaglia, whom you might not have known was a native Australian, appears in the fact-based “Australian opening night” (Feb. 6) selection “Balibo” as an Aussie journalist covering the 1975 invasion of East Timor, as well as in revived 2001 ensemble piece Lantana.
The Messenger’s Samantha Morton plays a grieving mother who adopts a possibly disturbed child in Ireland’s The Daisy Chain. John Malkovich is at his sardonic best in Disgrace, adapted from Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s novel. His arrogant Capetown professor, fired for a serious ethical lapse, retreats to a grown daughter’s farmstead where the post-Apartheid readjustment of power sparks new racial tensions.
Dean Spanley has the imposing quartet of Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Jeremy Northam dominating a slight but sweet slice of Edwardian whimsy. The late Heath Ledger gave arguably his last great performance (no, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn’t one–and I’m not sure about The Joker either) in 2006’s Candy, as a junkie who drags his younger girlfriend (Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish) down as well. A fleeting theatrical release here, it’s perhaps the best–as well as most relentlessly depressing–such story since Al Pacino’s debut feature Panic in Needle Park almost 40 years ago.
More serious turnings of the Way-Back Machine provide screenings of two wildly different British classics. A remastered new print of Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 color ballet-noir The Red Shoes should prove an eye-popping reintroduction to a movie that was many American’s first–or at least most impressive–experience of English cinema. Decades later, cinematographer turned director Nicholas Roeg brilliantly adapted a Daphne du Maurier (“The Birds”) story into the 1973 occult-tinged thriller Don’t Look Now, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as parents traveling to spooky Venice after a child’s tragic death. It’s probably Roeg’s best film, though I’ve a soft spot for both Bad Timing and Insignificance. (You might for The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie as a sexier E.T.)
Mostly British has a lot to offer in the emerging-talent arena. Radio DJ turned writer-director Mark Tonderai’s U.K. Hush is possibly the most alarming and inventive horror-action hybrid since 2007 U.S. indie The Signal. Suffice it to say it’s one of those stories in which things go from bad to much, much worse, without ever growing predictable or gratuitously gory. (Though some will doubtless find it too brutal for their taste.) It’s an exercise in neverending peril Hitchcock might have admired, with lead William Ash showcased in an adventuresome extreme-distress role to rival Sharlto Copley’s starmaking one in District 9.
Other notable inclusions range from contemporary Aussie noir The Square to disparate feature animations The Secret of the Kells, Peter and the Wolf and Mary and Max (which opened Sundance last year).
There are also documentaries Salute (about the repercussions of a 1968 Olympics gesture of Black Power solidarity), The End of the Line (dire seafood over-harvesting consequences) and Rough Aunties (multiracial South African women banding together to fight social injustice). There’s even a musical: Stage-adapted Bran Nue Day, a chipper Australian aboriginal road-trip tale as thoroughly Broadway-pop in sound as The Lion King.
One big coup is the festival’s Bay Area premiere of the Red Riding trilogy a couple weeks before its theatrical release (and a couple years before a projected U.S. remake). Each lent a strikingly distinct texture by different director, the three features–which have been a sensation on the festival circuit this year–cover a decade (1974-83) in scenarist Tony Grisoni’s adaptation of a literary quartet by David Peace. It’s an epic saga of Yorkshire crime, political corruption and noirish intrigue.
The official closing nighter is something truly odd: A comedy from Ken Loach! Yes, the U.K.’s longtime king of brute realism has made a bittersweet but funny fantasy about a sad-sack Manchester resident who conjures his soccer idol (Eric Cantona) as a semi-imaginary friend to offer relationship advice and general buck-up emotional support. It’s said to be very charming–one thing the 74-year-old director of Wind That Shakes the Barley, Poor Cow, etc. has seldom been accused of.
PUBLICATION: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
SECTION: NinetySixHours DATE: February 4, 2010
By G. Allen Johnson
The Mostly British Film Festival: The Australian brother act Joel and Nash Edgerton will make an appearance at the second annual festival with their plot-twisty noir “The Square” (7:15 p.m. Monday), which Joel co-wrote and stars in and Nash directed. The Edgertons are just in their 20s, but they’ve already been around for a decade, with Joel acting in and Nash doing stunt work for the second “Star Wars” trilogy. They’ll be happy to tell you all about it. The festival opens tonight at the Vogue Theatre with “London River,” starring Brenda Blethyn as a widow searching for her missing daughter, and closes next Thursday with the Ken Loach comedy “Looking for Eric.” Two others among the many highlights: the Martin Scorsese-fueled restoration of the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic “The Red Shoes” (Sunday at the Smith Rafael Film Center), with eye-popping cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, who died last year; and Jean Simmons’ final film, “Shadows in the Sun” (Saturday and next Thursday at the Vogue). Tonight-next Thursday at the Vogue, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F. (415) 346-2288; and at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. (415) 454-1222. www.mostlybritish.org.