Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 15th Sonoma International Film Festival opens this Wednesday with a stellar line-up of cinema, food, and wine in gorgeous Sonoma

Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis in "The Lady," which opens the 15th Sonoma International Film Festival this Wednesday. Yeoh plays Myanmar prodemocracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Magali Bragard@2011 EuropaCorp-Left Bank Pictures-France 2 Cinema.

This Wednesday, the curtain rises on the 15th annual Sonoma International Film Festival, pairing 5 nights and 4 days of nearly nonstop screenings— 123 new films of all genres from more than 30 countries— with great gourmet food and wine.  Highly anticipated by its loyal film-savvy audience, who see an average of 5 or more films each, this festival takes place in seven venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s charming town square and has a lot to offer both locals and destination visitors. “What gives our festival a very personal feeling is the chance to mingle with filmmakers and actors in our Backlot tent and at screenings and we absolutely deliver on the best in the film, food and wine,” said festival director Kevin McNeely on Monday.

Christopher Lloyd whose latest film is "Last Call," will be presented with an Award of Excellence, honoring his distinguished acting career. Photo: courtesy Last Call

Tribute to Christopher Lloyd:  This year’s festival will honor acclaimed actress Christopher Lloyd with an Award of Excellence on Thursday April 12th, 2012, at 8:30 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre, after the World Premiere of Last Call.  Lloyd, now 74, began acting at the age 14 and rose to prominence in the 1980’s as Jim Ignatowski in the popular TV show, Taxi.  Lloyd is best known for playing Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy and Uncle Fester in The Addams Family and its sequel Addams Family Values and Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Throughout his career, he has acted on stage and in the summer of 2010, he starred as Willy Loman in a Weston Playhouse production of Death of a Salesman.  

John Waters performs "This Filthy World" at the 15th Sonoma International Film Festival, April 11-15, 2012. Image: courtesy SIFF

Last Call is a classic raunchy buddy comedy with a heart of gold—underachieving siblings Phil and Danny O’Donnell are forced to run the family pub to save their eccentric uncle Pete (Christopher Lloyd) from jail time and financial ruin.  The only problem is that Pete, a crazy off-the-boat Irishman, has already alienated most of the clientele, nearly run the bar into the ground and created an almost impossible situation.  The boys rise to the occasion, instigating a number of hilarious schemes, from turning the pub into a strip club to a high school speakeasy, just to keep it afloat.  Christopher Lloyd, along with fellow cast member Clint Howard (brother of Ron Howard), will be joined by producers Greg Garthe and Spence Jackson for a Q&A after the screening.   Following that, there will be a montage of Lloyd’s work and presentation of the Award of Excellence by Festival Director Kevin McNeely.

John Waters:  On Saturday evening, the festival welcomes innovative American filmmaker, actor, stand-up comedian, writer and artist John Waters, now 65, with a special tribute dinner and Waters’ one-man vaudeville show “This Filthy World,” at the Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Building.  Waters is best known for creating Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), and Serial Mom (1994).  “John Waters exemplifies some of America’s most unique filmmaking beyond mainstream storylines. said Festival Director Kevin McNeely.  “His ability to portray extreme characters with both darkness and humor is a testament to his extreme talent.”  (The dinner is 6 to 8 p.m. and the show is 8:15-9:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 15, 2012 at the Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Building.)

The Film Line-Up:

The festival kicks off on Wednesday evening with three screenings, all at 7 p.m:  Luc Besson’s biopic,  The Lady, at the Sebastiani Theatre; Jill Sharpe’s documentary, Bone, Wind, Fire,  at the Sonoma Museum of Art and Orlando Arriagada’s  documentary, Beyond the Miracle, (Detras del Milagro) (2010, 52 minutes).  Thematically, you can go in any direction your taste takes you.  This festival has something for everyone.  I am focusing on films that tell great stories that you aren’t likely to see screened anywhere else.

The Lady (2011, 132 minutes) is the film to see for its timeliness and compelling drama.  Fresh from a landslide election to parliament last week, the heroic Myanmar prodemocracy activist and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, now 66, is the subject of The Lady.  Michelle Yeoh, one of Asia’s best known actresses, stars in this intimate chronicle of the exhausting and exhilarating life of Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest before her release last year.  The Lady follows Suu Kyi starting in 1988 when she returned to Myanmar, formerly Burma, to care for her ailing mother and soon became iconic in the battle against the military dictatorship.  The story focuses on her family life—her marriage to British academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons.  Aris, an Oxford professor, strongly supported Suu Kyi’s decision to stay in Myanmar, raising their children and playing a pivotal role behind the scenes in campaigning for her Nobel Peace Prize.  This decision, for the greater good, entailed years of separation and was a tremendous burden yet it was mutually agreed upon and seemed to cement their courageous love.  This is inspirational film that will send chills down your spine and as you witness this courageous lady in action.

Jill Sharpe's "Bone, Wind, Fire," explores three iconic artists―Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe and Emily Carr―at highs and lows of their lives. Sharpe combed through thousands of pages of their personal diaries hoping to give viewers access to the thought lives of these women. Image courtesy: National Film Board of Canada

If you have the patience to wait and see The Lady when it comes to your local theatre—and it will come—then Jill Sharpe’s Bone, Wind, Fire  (2011, 48 minutes) is a beautiful contemplative documentary that pays homage to three iconic artists—Frida Kahlo,  Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr.  The film just snagged Best Canadian Film award at FIFA  (Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art) and is an intimate and evocative journey into the hearts, minds and eyes of three of the 20th century’s most remarkable artists.  Each woman had her own response to her environment, to the people that surrounded her and to the artistic or practical challenges she faced in wringing beauty and truth from her particular time and place.  Bone Wind Fire uses the women’s own words, taken from their letters and diaries, to reveal three individual creative processes in all their subtle and fascinating variety.  ( Screens 7 p.m. Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.  Plays with short film Hotstuff.)

The main character in Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu’s poignant and funny feature film The Source (La source des femmes)(2011, 135 min) is a very undemocratic arid mountain village in North Africa (the Atlas mountains of Morocco) in which women, young and old, fetch water, day in and day out, while the men sit back and watch.  Frustrated by this, a young bride―actually, an outsider from the South―played by the French-Algerian actress Leila Bekhti, works on her entourage, and urges the other women to strike: no more sex until their men go to work.  The opposition she faces is from both men and women, especially her mother-in-law.  Breathtaking cinematography and beautiful choral music.  What this film, released just as the Arab Spring protests were taking place, shows is that revolution starts at home, with the evaluation of  long-standing customs and attitudes.  And, of course, that human heart too can suffer from being arid. (Screens Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at Sebastiani Theatre)

Lunafest—shorts by, for and about women

Lunafest is an annual traveling film festival of award-winning shorts by, for and about women.  This year, it features 9 films—stories of reflection, hope, and humor—that will travel to over 150 cities and benefit organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund.  All of the shorts sound fascinating but Saba Riazi’s The Wind is Blowing on My Street  tells a simple story with poignant implications, especially for the young Iranian lead actress in the film who appears in the credits as simply “anonymous.”  This veiled young woman can’t wait to come home and rip off her head scarf.   When she accidentally locks herself out of her apartment and her scarf is whooshed away in a gust of wind, the reality of living in contemporary Iran sets it.  The Iranian filmmaker who made it lives in New York and attends film school at NYU but she did a short stint in Iran’s film industry before leaving.  The program starts with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2012 at the Sonoma Museum of Art and the screenings begin at 6:30 p.m.)

New: “La Quinceañera Film Fiesta”

The weekend’s programming kicks into high gear Friday with concurrent screenings in all venues across town.   New this year, in honor of the festival’s 15th birthday, is a festival-within-a festival, “La Quinceañera Film Fiesta” honoring Spanish-language filmmakers from across the globe Friday evening and two full days, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.  There is a kick-off party with live mariachi music on Friday in the Backlot tent.   All films will be presented in Spanish with English subtitles at the Sonoma Charter School.  Ticket prices for each film will be $1, with childcare provided.   The mini festival was organized by Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, who has pulled 15 films from Argentina to Spain, including Orlando Arriagada’s  documentary Beyond the Miracle (Detras del Milagro) (2010, 52 minutes) which tells the story of four of the 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days, 688 meters underground in 35°C heat in the hellish mine, Los 33.  Director Orlando Arriagada will be in attendance. (Screens: Wednesday, April 11- 7:00pm Women’s Club. Friday, April 13- 3:00 pm, Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room.  Plays with two short films by Carlos P. Beltran, Pasion and Voluntad & Paz.)

Chico y Rita (Chico & Rita) (Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, Cuba, 2010, 94 min)  is a musical Cuban film set in 1948 Havana which follows a jazz pianist and singer enthralled in a romance that unfolds against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution.  As the couple escape Cuba and travel to New York, Las Vegas and Paris to follow their dreams, all set Latin jazz, they discover that they really do need each other to make their music.  The film captures a defining moment in the evolution of jazz and earned an Oscar nomination for “Best Animated Feature.”

America….Ella se Atrveio (America…She Dared) (Sonia Fritz, 2011, Puerto Rico, 90 minutes) follows a thirty year-old mother, America, from her remote Caribbean village to Manhattan, where she seeks refuge after her abusive lover takes her daughter from her.  (Screens Friday 8:30 p.m., Sonoma Museum of Art and Sunday 4:30 p.m., Sonoma Charter School.  Filmmaker Sonia Fritz in attendance.)

Music, Music, Music

This festival always offers exceptional music documentaries and this year, there are two that are essential viewing—Kevin MacDonald’s Marley, which plays Saturday evening, and Judy Chaikin’s  The Girls in the Band, which plays Friday and Sunday afternoons.  Violinist Kenji Williams will also give a live performance on Friday and Saturday evenings as he accompanies his film Bella Gaia.

Jamaican reggae-superstar, Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 at the tender age of 36, is the subject of Kevin MacDonald’s Marley (2012, 144 min), the new highly buzzed-about bio-pic about Marley which has the blessings of his son, Ziggy, his widow, Rita, and the long-estranged original Wailer, Neville  “Bunny” Livingstone.  The filmmaker, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September (1999) and The Last King of Scotland (2006), told New York Times writer John Anderson that said he set out to “interview anyone who was alive and intimate with Marley.” (NYT 4.6.2012)  Aside from children, partners and musicians, Marley introduces a new character, Dudley Sibley, a former recording artist and janitor who lived with Marley for 18 months in the back of the Jamaican recording studio, Studio 1, where young Marley started out.

This year, Judy Chaikin’s  The Girls in the Band (2012, 81 minutes) does for jazz what Lynn Hershman Leeson’s  !Women Art Revolution (2010)  did for women artists —through intimate interviews with three generations of women jazz artists, she explores the hidden significant history of women in jazz.  The film starts off with women from the 1930’s and 1940’s, the golden age of big band and swing, who relate their triumphs and struggles in a very sexist and racist environment.  Roz Cron, Clora Bryant, Billie Rogers, Peggy Gilbet and Viola Smith, Vi Red, Melba Liston and others all grew up around music and wanted to pursue it professionally but were barred from all-male bands.  Many of these women formed or joined all female groups and the film tells their poignant stories.  And the proof of their talent is in their music clips, which roar.  (Screens: Friday April 13, 2:30 pm, Sebastiani Theatre, and Sunday, April 15, 3:30 pm, Sebastiani Windery Barrel Room. Judy Chaiken will be in attendance.)

Violinist Kenji Williams has collaborated with some of the most respected artists and scientists of our times and will perform live at the two screenings of “Bella Gaia,” which uses NASA shots of planet earth to create a stunning portrait of our planet. Image courtesy: Kenji Williams

Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) (2012, 50 minutes) is an awe-inspiring film and live music performance created by award winning filmmaker, composer, and violinist Kenji Williams.  The film incorporates stunning scientific visualizations by NASA and successfully simulates space flight, taking the audience on a spectacular journey around endangered planet Earth.  Bella Gaia showcases a thought-provoking stream of current scientific data about our changing ecosystems while also celebrating the amazing beauty and cultural heritage of humanity, delivering an unforgettable experience—all guided by the hypnotic, ecstatic music of Kenji Williams performed live. (Screens 6 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2012, at the Sonoma Community Center and 6 p.m. Saturday, April 14, 2012, at the Sebastiani Theatre.)

A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Paulina Rodriguez, is featured in John Beck’s “Harvest.” Paulina was "la jefa" - the boss of a rare all-female picking crew that toiled through the soggy, challenging 2011 wine-grape harvest in Sonoma County. Photo: Charlie Gesell

Cinema Epicurea  Food and wine is where SIFF stakes its claim.  John Beck’s Harvest, a new wine documentary follows the 2011 wine grape harvest in Sonoma, picking up viewers and dropping them in the vineyards at 2 a.m. to see night picks orchestrated by tiny headlamps, 24/7 machine harvesting and how a few inches of rain can destroy a promising cluster of grapes.  Beck, who delighted audiences with Worst in Show (2011), has cast his intimate DSLR lens on five tight-knit family-owned wineries―Foppiano, Robledo, Rafanelli, Harvest Moon and Robert Hunter―along with an amateur home winemaker and a rare all-female picking crew from Mexico assembled by Bacchus Vineyard management, through what many would call “the toughest harvest” in their lifetime.  The pick, known as “La pisca” by the Mexican crews, involved long days and nights among the vines.  Stories that come to life under Beck’s direction, include that of Reynaldo Robledo of Robledo Family Winery, the first winery to be owned by a former migrant farm worker, and the all-female Mexican crew assembled by Bacchus Vineyard Management.  (Screens Friday, April 13, 2012 at 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 3 p.m. at Sebastiani Winery, 389 4th Street East.  Attendees at the Friday’s premiere will be served wine from the wineries in the film. )

Wine, Food and “Backlot”

Anyone who has been to Sonoma knows that this is a community that savors life along with the finest of food and wine. This ambiance infuses SFIFF too.  “The Backlot,” the festival’s culinary hub, is a one-of-a-kind hospitality tent on the North side of Sonoma’s City Hall that is open to all pass holders.  Here, they can mingle in a chic lounge environment while enjoying the best wine country vintages and culinary delights.  You’ll also notice at many of the screenings that staff is on hand giving out generous samplings of treats like yogurt, ice cream and snack bars.  To celebrate the festival’s opening on Thursday, April 12, 20120, Bistro Boudin of San Francisco will present gourmet cuisine with premium Sonoma Valley wines.  Click here to see a complete list of event, food & beverage and winery partners for SIFF15.

Closing Night Festivities: The festival closes on Sunday, April 10th, with an Awards Ceremony in the Backlot Tent at 8 pm.  Winners of the Jury Awards in all film categories including Features, Documentaries, World Cinema, Shorts, and Animation will be announced.

Festival Details:

Festival Passes and Tickets:

Star Pass $700 each/$1,325 for two.  Access to Festival Films and panels with “Fast Lane” entry for priority seating; access to all receptions and post-film parties; all Spotlight Tributes; “Big Night” Party; entry to special VIP Food & Wine area of Backlot.

 Premiere Pass $30/$625 for two. Access to all films and panels with priority film entry before Festival Pass holders; Opening Night Reception; entry to celebrity Spotlight Tributes; Closing Night 1st film screening and Awards Party

 Festival Pass $175 each/$320 for two.  Access to all regular films and panels & Closing Night Awards Party.

Weekend Pass: Saturday & Sunday ($110 each) Access to all films and panels on Saturday and Sunday

Two-Day Pass: Friday & Saturday ($100) Access to all films and panels on Friday and Saturday.

 Single Film Tickets:  $15 general entry tickets can be purchased at box office.  Arrive 30 minutes before screening and wait to be seated.

3 films for the Price of 2! $30:  good for entry to three single films, redeemable any time during the Film Festival.

Venue Locations:

Sebastiani Theatre – 476 First St. East
New Belgium Pub at The Woman’s Club – 574 First Street. East
Mia’s Kitchen at Sonoma Community Center – 276 E. Napa Street, Room 109
Murphy’s Irish Pub – 464 First Street East
Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room – 389 Fourth Street East
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art – 551 Broadway
Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Hall – 126 First Street West

Vintage House– 264 First Street East

April 9, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment