Films From The 2015 San Francisco IndieFest

by on February 6, 2015

A timely highlight of this year’s San Francisco Independent Film Festival is its Centerpiece film “The Other Barrio.”  Dante Betteo’s adaptation of Alejandro Murguia’s story is a San Francisco-set tale of a Mission District steadily smothered by economic gentrification.

Inspector Roberto Morales (Richard Montoya) of San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection suspects a fire that kills seven people at a Mission residential hotel was not an accident.  But Morales’ effort to obtain justice for the fire’s victims gets undermined by the powerful interests who’ll profit from the fire.  His ultimate struggle becomes revivifying his crushed soul.

The noir trope of one good man fighting a big corrupt system sets “The Other Barrio” going.  But San Francisco as a noir setting is just one of the city’s aspects being celebrated.   Others include the city as a haven for bohemian dreamers and working class strivers.

Death is the film’s ever present but visually absent character.  The film’s title metaphorically references the cultural graveyard for gentrification’s victims.  Morales privately despairs at being a witness for those Mission residents who’ve already passed over.

Murguia, playing himself, serves as a roving embodiment of the Mission District’s soul.  Noir purists will object to Murguia’s other role in the story.

“The Other Barrio” displays minor mistakes such as Morales coming out of the rain with a completely dry trenchcoat.   Lovely San Francisco mural porn and familiar Mission venues lost to gentrification overshadow these problems and make Betteo’s film worth checking out.

***

Bingham Bryan and Bryan Molzan’s “For The Plasma” fails the plausibility test twice.  Flat delivery and subsequent events do a terrible job of convincing a viewer that the universe’s patterns are found in intuitively-perceived computer-monitored shots of Maine forest.  Bryan and Molzan don’t even show that their premise’s apparent absurdity displays a weirdly ingenious sense.  Spend viewing time watching the far better “Upstream Color” instead.

***

Free-form Jersey City radio station WFMU receives a predictable treatment in the documentary “Sex And Broadcasting.”  Station DJ interviews and show samples are presented.  But the end credits’ subliminal message sequence provides a nice surprise.  Director Tim K. Smith’s portrait still entertains because he loves this utterly weird alt-culture version of “The Muppet Show” led by benevolent dictator Ken Freedman.

Utter broadcast chaos may be expected from a free-form radio station’s “you don’t know what you’re going to get” ethos.  Yet Smith shows that element of weird unpredictability is precisely what listeners such as “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and comedian Patton Oswalt love about the station.  Where else on the radio dial or the Internet will a listener find a station that plays obscure rockabilly, a right-wing Jewish culture program, and even a live musical performance using water glasses and balloons?  Several interviewees admit everyone won’t like everything that WFMU broadcasts.  But as the viewer meets such DJs as Nick the Bard and Vanilla Bean, adventurously patient visitors will be eventually rewarded with a unique audio treasure.

The great distance between doing what one loves and the money that’s supposed to follow in one’s wake provides a running theme to WFMU’s existence.  Station manager Freedman so clearly loves what WFMU stands for that he’s willing to have an image of Hannah Montana shaved into his hair to raise money for the station.  Yet his love for the station also translates to making tough decisions to keep the station going.  Talented DJ Jim “The Hound” Marshall gets sacked when his behavior gets way out of hand.

Smith avoids bursting the charmed WFMU bubble by not discussing a particular uncomfortable topic.  Freedman provides the glue that keeps the station going.  How will WFMU survive the day after Freedman feels he can’t run the station?  None of the other WFMU volunteers appear capable of filling Freedman’s role.

Until that day arises, though, bask in this entertaining glimpse inside the magic of WFMU.

***

For sheer bizarreness, S.F. IndieFest hits a high mark with Andrew Leavold’s documentary “The Search For Weng Weng.”  It’s the chronicle of Leavold’s seven year quest to discover the ultimate fate of Philippine action film star Weng Weng.  The Guinness Book of World Records called the 2’9” actor the film world’s shortest leading man.  The quest is made more difficult by Leavold’s knowledge that Weng Weng is a pseudonym.  Also, finding prints of Weng’s films is difficult because most Philippine film from the period got turned into vinegar or landfill.  However, chance meetings will take Leavold and his crew from an encounter with Weng’s cinematographer to a lavish visit with ex-First Wife Imelda Marcos.

Weng comes off as a tragic figure whose dreams were exploited.  “For Your Height Only”’s trailer seems to look every few seconds for some way to joke about Weng’s height.  Peter and Cora Caballes, who ran the film production company Liliw Productions, never paid Weng a single peso for his work.  The tiny actor was treated as a child rather than an employee.

Knowing these facts about Weng’s life may induce some guilt over being entertained by seeing the diminutive actor as a sex magnet.  Yet these qualms are quieted a bit by seeing film clips displaying insane inventiveness such as a radio-controlled straw hat weapon.  Topping that is the Western shootout that quickly involves arrow-shooting pygmies and a band of ninjas.

“For Your Height Only” may have drawn international attention to Philippine cinema.  But Leavold shows the story behind the film’s star is also something worth noticing.

(“The Other Barrio” screens February 8, 2015 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM at the Brava Theater (2781-24th Street, SF).  “For The Plasma” screens February 8, 2015 at 7:15 PM and February 12, 2015 at 7:15 PM.  “Sex And Broadcasting” screens February 14, 2015 at 2:45 PM and February 15, 2015 at 2:45 PM.  “The Search For Weng Weng” screens February 8, 2015 at 2:45 PM.  These screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  For tickets and further information about the film, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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