SFIFF51, My take… Part 1


The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF51) has just concluded. Unlike the previous two years, this year I didn”t work at the Festival, so I had no insider information to use in selecting films (nor did I have free tickets). You can see my chronicles of the 49th and 50th in the archives of this site.

For SFIFF51, I relied on the Program Guide for my selections, as well as chatting up members of the SFFS staff at the Members Night previews. The Program Guide has descriptions of each film, along with one picture. They are not reviews, but promotional descriptions meant to entice ticket buyers to buy tickets.

Here, I include the Program Guide entries for the films I saw, and append a paragraph called My Take — for my reaction to the film. I’ve rated the films, as well, from * to **** with ~ being a half star. I”ve noted the films that have distribution. Some will gain distribution due to their exposure here, some may never be seen again.

The films are presented in the order I saw them, April 25 through May 9, 2008. My first film, The Golem, was a one time, live performance.

A silent classic and an exemplary specimen of German expressionist cinema, The Golem is set in 16th century Prague. A rabbi fashions a proto—Frankenstein’s monster, sculpted from rough clay and brought to life through sorcery, to protect the Jewish ghetto from a Christian emperor’s decree that it be dissolved. Through means both surprising and charming, the creature manages to stave off the wrath of the emperor and his court. But it eventually goes haywire, as the rabbi’s jealous assistant turns the golem toward evil. A true juggernaut, the golem destroys everything in its path. The last in a trilogy of films on the golem myth, all cowritten and codirected by Paul Wegener, The Golem depicts the labyrinthine ghetto as a baroque and anxious world of secrets and magic capable of producing amazing discoveries as well as horrific power. Wegener, who had a long career as an actor, plays the title character with odd grace. Photographed by master cinematographer Karl Freund (Metropolis, The Last Laugh), the film, in a beautiful archival print, remains visually stunning. But there are aural enchantments in store as well at this special screening. Black Francis (aka Frank Black), best known as the front man for the towering 1990s alt-rock band, the Pixies, will perform the world premiere of his original score for the film live and onstage at the Castro Theatre. One of the most influential songwriters and performers of his generation, Black Francis’s collaborative appearance with The Golem marks a unique outing in musical and cinematic history.
—Sean Uyehara

From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
The Golem Goes Underground_Informed sources tell Scoop that the Golem was spotted at large in our fair city, nearly 24 hours before its scheduled appearance at the Castro Theatre Friday night. Those on hand to hear Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand fame) play a late-night set at Café du Nord were no doubt nonplussed to see ex-Pixies front man Black Francis take the stage around midnight for an unscheduled run-through of his score for the Festival screening of Paul Wegener’s 1920 silent classic. A bedsheet apparently served as makeshift screen for a DVD projection of the German Expressionist horror flick, as Francis dry-ran the show for denizens of the subterranean club, treating them to a taste of the monstrous scenes and killer sounds unleashed at the Festival the following night. Where will he strike next?

My take — A spectacle indeed. A packed house at the Castro is exciting all by itself. I”m not a big fan of silent movies, but I was drawn into this one by its very weirdness, and the live music was oh so appropriate. ****

Twin brothers from a small Northern California town must face their own shortcomings and those of their homeless father in this deeply moving family drama from local self-taught filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller, featuring an extraordinary performance by Ed Harris.

My take — I chose not to go. Carol and Sarah said it was pretty good, but “,you wouldn”t have liked it.” After, at O Izakaya, Ed Harris, Graham, Ben and others came in for dinner. They had the private upstairs room, we were in the bar savoring some good eats.


At Ray Ruby’s Paradise strip club, chaos reigns. The eponymous manager (genially played by Willem Dafoe) is four months behind with the rent. He hasn”t paid his dancers either, who are threatening him with a strike. And the club’s chef, who has gourmet aspirations, is upset that the rottweiler who performs with Monroe (Asia Argento, popping up memorably for the third time in this year’s Festival) is eating his gourmet free-range hot dogs. Added to this roster are a malfunctioning tanning bed, pregnant lesbian strippers, a dwindling clientele and more. Not to mention the fact that it’s talent night, when the strippers put their clothes on and reveal their non-ecdysiast skills. Though Ray’s show-must-go-on attitude has him endeavoring to take care of all these matters at once, his shrewish landlady, Lillian (an unforgettable Sylvia Miles), trains his attention on financial matters by continually threatening to turn the club into a Bed Bath & Beyond. Writer/director Abel Ferrara is in grand form here, and it is a great pleasure to see how he plays out these multiple narrative strands. Altman seems a major influence to this end, as the camera roams throughout the club eavesdropping on the numerous characters. Ray Ruby, though, remains the through-line, and his surprising scheme to save the club from ruin proves hilariously and calamitously plausible. With a bump-and-grind soundtrack, a terrific (and pulchritudinous) cast and a delightfully improvisatory flow, these Tales are told with terrific panache.
—Rod Armstrong

My take — Boooorrrring. Is it possible for a film with extensive T & A to be boring? Yes. And a boring film should not be screened at 11:45pm. Yawn. *~

Stranded: I”ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains
France (although the filmmaker lived in the Montevideo neighborhood of many of the survivors)

In 1972, a plane carrying a young Uruguayan rugby team to Chile crashed high in the Andean Cordillera. Roughly half of the 45 passengers die on impact or from injuries in the following days. A week later, their transistor radio announces that brutal conditions have forced an end to the rescue search. A month in, more die in an avalanche that buries the broken fuselage in which they sleep. The weather worsens. Rations run out. The remaining young men cling to life, waiting for spring and the search to resume. As days go by they weaken further. Three die in their sleep. Finally, unwilling to wait for death to claim them all, two hike out of the “Valley of Tears,” over ridge after ridge, through blizzards and waist-deep drifts, in threadbare clothing, without equipment, to a shepherd’s cottage far below, and arrange the rescue of their remaining 14 friends. In all, the group spends 72 days on the mountain, in unimaginable conditions. Many are familiar with this extraordinary tale of courage and endurance from Piers Paul Reads” bestseller Alive! or the 1993 fictionalized screen adaptation. But even those who know the story will be amazed and deeply moved by the profound humanity of Gonzalo Arijon’s sublime documentary account. Arijon, a boyhood friend of many of the survivors, creates a seamless tale at once dreamlike and concrete, weaving together unflinchingly honest on-camera interviews, brilliant dramatic recreation and an astonishing present-day trip to the crash site by survivors and their families. This rare work combines consummate cinematic skill with unforgettable moral impact.
—Graham Leggat

My take — Graham went over-the-top in his profuse praise for this film, and deservedly so. One can”t imagine the cold and wind and hunger and conditions encountered, but the honest soulful tales that the survivors had to tell were graphic and gut wrenching. Listen to Graham, he’s right. A magnificent film. ****

In the City of Sylvia
The play of light and shadow across a wall, a boy searching for a girl, the joined yet discrete fates of strangers on a tram—José Luis Guerín nimbly brings moviemaking and moviegoing back to some of their lovely early pleasures in his masterful In the City of Sylvia. He so successfully modernizes and rarefies these elements that it forces one to reconsider the dialogue and special effects on display in other films as so much clutter. This is a field recording that reawakens your ears. It’s also an everyday yet sublime vision, one so exquisite you”d think that everything Guerín looks at—the city of Strasbourg, its flaneurs and shops, even the sun that shines on it—was created for the loving gaze of his camera. The story also evokes the most blessed moments of a New Wave work like Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. A young man (Xavier Lafitte) puzzles over and searches for Sylvia, the would-be sweetheart he remembers from an encounter six years ago. During a bravura sequence at an outdoor café, the young man sits and sketches amid tables buzzing with conversation, as women’s faces—some seen directly, others reflected through glass—dominate several planes of vision. When one dark-haired woman (Pilar López de Ayala) gets up and leaves, the young man follows her. And we follow him, as his journey passes through a cobbled labyrinth of alleys and streets and eventually into a nightclub’s heart of glass, where it all began.
—Johnny Ray Huston

My take — Mr Huston is right on in his description. Carol said it reminded her of 3-iron, because of its sparse dialog. But 3-iron was a suspense thriller; this is a story of unrequited love, carried out at a walking pace. Some of the fixed camera shots, down a street or alley go on for minutes and yet remain alive. A stunningly beautiful film. ****

Shorts from various countries by or about women

Archetypal qualities steadfastly attributed to women, even in our age of gender enlightenment—exoticism, elusiveness and impenetrability—are playfully deconstructed in this alternately saucy and somber sextet of narrative and documentary short films. The narratives come enlivened by feisty female protagonists, among them prison inmates who take part in a beauty pageant, a senior mysteriously linked to unsolved crimes and a Muslim woman from Ethiopia who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a coffee brewer.

My take — I like shorts a lot, and these were good ones. At the Q&A, I asked if they came as a package, or were they selected individually and grouped by the programmers? A — There were something like 800 submissions, the very best were selected and then grouped by the programmers.

The Grand Inquisitor
A cache of used books containing clues to unsolved murders leads a young woman to the door of a possible serial killer’s widow. A tense, noir-inflected thriller from celebrated Bay Area writer/filmmaker Eddie Muller. (Eddie Muller, USA 2007, 20 min)

My take — My favorite. A noir tale of a senior mysteriously linked to unsolved crimes with a startling conclusion.

Since You”ve Been Ong
When Elizabeth Ong fails to show up for a meeting with friends, she receives a series of voice mail messages chronicling a missed afternoon of merrymaking. (Frank Yeean Chan, USA 2007, 4 min)

  My take — I didn”t really get it, but it was well done.

La Corona
In Bogotá, Colombia, four incarcerated women vie for a coveted beauty pageant crown in this Oscar-nominated gem codirected by Double Dare’s (SFIFF 2004) Amanda Micheli. (Amanda Micheli, Isabel Vega, USA 2007, 40 min) Distributed by HBO Entertainment

From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)  
Beauty and Brains_It was not easy to get permission to film La Corona, according to codirector Amanda Micheli. Press crews typically film the beauty pageant itself, held in a Bogatá women’s prison, but the filmmakers” idea was to follow the daily preparations for the pageant. Their persistence paid off with the authorities, and they ended up filming inside the prison for two months. Allowed two hours twice a day, they were always accompanied by a guard, who would escort them out at the first sign of conflict or impropriety. “But really, it depended on which guard it was,” Micheli tells Scoop. Some were lenient enough to let the camera capture two girls smoking pot, for example. The Academy Award—nominated La Corona, by Micheli and Isabel Vega, screens this evening as part of the documentary shorts program, The Feminine Mystique. —MB

My take — My second fav, A thorough telling of the tale. The women were indeed beautiful. It turns out that the winner was released a year later and subsequently killed on the streets of Bogotá. The second place woman — in for being a hired assassin and my favorite — went on to become an actress.

The Ladies
An endearing portrait of two elderly sisters, Mimi and Vali, who have lived through the Hungarian Revolution, marriage and divorce while holding onto their craft, their grudges and each other. (Christina Voros, USA 2007, 13 min)

My take — eh

Coffee and Allah
A young Muslim woman, newly arrived from Ethiopia, is introduced to the secular world through a surprising game of badminton, daily runs to a cafe and a friendly coffee brewer. (Sima Urale, New Zealand 2007, 14 min)

My take — Lovely story from New Zealand.

WING, the fish that talked back
Little Wing is fascinated by marine life and curious about her ancestral homeland of China. Fantasy and reality mingle whimsically in her story, featuring an old lady who does not talk, some fish and a nice hot cup of tea. (Ricky Rijneke, Netherlands 2007, 13 min) —Audrey Chang

My take — A little girl thing, beautiful imagery.



High in the Himalayas, teenage Lasya lives with her father and younger brother in their modest ancestral home. Surrounded by the majesty of snow-capped mountains, her father ekes out a subsistence living making apricot jam with an antiquated press. Heavily in debt to a loan shark and approaching yet another moneylender, he resists an offer to clear his obligations in exchange for his daughter and house. The family’s problems are compounded by a Gurkha regiment that sets up camp next to them and eventually requires them to leave their home. Chandrabhushan’s feature film debut displays an ambitious style, redolent of his experience as a photographer and mountaineer. Shanker Raman’s high contrast black-and-white cinematography is visually stunning, while skillfully serving the director’s intent navigation of space. Whether focusing on speck-sized figures in a snowy Himalayan landscape or Lasya’s possibly real, possibly imaginary visions, Chandrabhushan glides between the exterior space where man lives with nature and the interior one where thoughts and memories interweave. The presence of the army, meanwhile, signals an ultimate invasion of space, a hegemonic force that will affect both the minds and bodies of the family as the film moves to its surprising conclusion.
—Roger Garcia

My take — Extreme close-ups,stark vistas, The film is about cinematography and music with just enough narrative to show that people can live and be happy and struggle through life at 15,000 feet in the Himalayas. Now, I need a raucous comedy! ***


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