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 8, 2008.
I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND
Czech Republic, Sony Pictures
I Served the King of England marks the return of director JirÃ Menzel, master filmmaker of the Czech New Wave. The story, told in flashbacks, concerns the rise and fall of an amorous and opportunistic apprentice waiter. Jan DÃte is a little man with a big appetite for discreet sexual encounters and worldly success. His coming of age at various grand hotels exposes him to the lifestyles of the upper crust, the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of 1930s Czech society, and a taste of their self-indulgent and carefree extravagance fuels his ambition. Soon he lands a job at a prestigious luxury hotel, where a chance encounter with a Sudeten German activist leads to a newly varnished Aryan identity. As the hotel changes hands from private ownership to the grip of the German SS, he finds himself in one of the Lebensborn breeding resorts designed to spawn the Aryan master race. It appears he finally has it made, but with the Germans occupying Czechoslovakia he is unfortunately on the wrong side of history. Luscious to look at, this finely crafted film is based on the picaresque novel of Bohumil Hrabal (1914—1997), a frequent Menzel collaborator who inspired a generation with his lyrical yet unsentimental view of 20th century life.
From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
Service with a Smile_Czech New Wave master JirÃ Menzel returned to SFIFF after an 14-year hiatus with his fifth adaptation a Bohumil Hrabal novel, which he claimed was much richer than any film could ever hope to be. By way of introduction, he playfully cautioned, “This is very important! Be careful: This film is not about the king of England.” Perhaps not, but from the moment the theater darkened the screen filled with just about everything else: luscious landscapes, inconceivably garish lifestyles, steamy sex scenes and the improbable, kaleidoscopic adventures of a tiny man. Despite his obvious proclivity for the loud, brash and colorful, Menzel admitted his greatest desire would be to make a good silent film. He seemed to positively blush at an audience member’s comparison between Charlie Chaplin and I Served the King of England’s small protagonist. As with the Tramp himself, Menzel explained that a thoroughly entertaining picture was only part of his aim; equally as central was “getting young people interested in history.” —IT
My take — A fantasy of food and babes, indeed, a raucous comedy with a strong dose of Czech history. ****
A STRAY GIRLFRIEND
When we meet Inés (director/cowriter Ana Katz) and Miguel (Daniel Hendler) they are in the middle of a lovers” row on a public bus headed to their seaside holiday. At first we”re unsure if this is a temporary Mars/Venus disconnect or the finale to a less than satisfying long-term liaison. We”ve all been through it: The relationship is over, but only one partner admits the obvious. While Miguel tries to sleep, Inés sobs, “I can”t spend all my life explaining to you what a couple is. I can”t spend all my time trying to understand you.” As it turns out, she won”t have to. Inés gets off the bus only to find it roaring off with Miguel still on board, leaving her to ‘stray” on her own. The forlorn Inés meets charming locals, but studiously avoids the kindly advances of chubby, cupid-like archer (Carlos Portaluppi) who pines for her. The errant girlfriend instead attempts to communicate with her ex-love via a series of aborted phone calls. Katz’s portrayal of Inés subtly intimates the psychological condition of a rejected young woman adrift in that limbo of love/hate we”ve all experienced. Given this young artist’s promise——her triple threat as writer, director and actor——we”ll definitely be seeing more of Ana Katz, whose well-observed dry comedy played in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.
My take — When Ines — not a particularly attractive or sympathetic woman of 30 — is left standing by the side of the road, we learn she has a four day stay at the Argentinean seaside resort. We witness the five stages of grief over the loss her love; denial (I must have got off at the wrong stop, he”ll surely show up), resentment (who does he think he is?, she remotely erases his voice mail and deletes his emails), bargaining (hours on the phone, call after call), depression (she faints on a walk in the woods and becomes physically ill, later runs away from the “cupid-like archer” as he swims in the ocean) and finally, acceptance (she calls her mother and sister to join her at the resort). In a different league from the previous films. **~
CACHAO: UNO MAS
A mild-mannered elderly gentleman steps onstage amid an ensemble of topnotch musicians. It is the living legend, the “Picasso of the bass,” the great Cuban musician Israel “Cachao” LÃ³pez, who immediately becomes the center of the action. Stirring San Francisco concert footage at Bimbo’s 365 Club is interspersed with interviews with friends, associates and Latin music aficionados who describe LÃ³pez’s vast influence and recount affectionate stories of the man they so admire. In the 1940s, LÃ³pez, with his brother Orestes, brought the rhythm section to the forefront of the sedate Cuban danzÃ³n and in the process virtually invented modern Cuban music. In the 1950s, Cachao popularized descargasâ€”raucous jam sessions that brought together legendary Cuban musicians. Now nearly 90, the unstoppable Cachao recalls his boyhood forays into music and the days when musicians often performed without pay simply for the love of song. Cachao: Uno MÃ¡s is an impassioned valentine to the Cuban artist and innovator, and a fitting follow-up to Andy Garcia’s concert documentary Cachao (Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos) (SFIFF 1993). Garcia has devoted himself to maintaining the legacy of the great musician who (judging by the heartfelt accolades the actor voices as he accompanies the maestro onstage) has reconnected him to his roots. The Bimbo’s showâ€”an all-star jam with a group assembled by John Santos (who plays the congas)â€”includes saxophonist Justo Almario, timbalero Orestes VilatÃ³, vocalist LÃ¡zaro Galarraga and a brilliant battle of affectionate one-upmanship between a fiercely strumming Cachao and violinist Federico Britos.
My take — I had never heard of Cachao, but this film sounded compelling. Oh my! Those guys are having fun! The music is contagious and built to a point where it was hard to remain in my seat and keep from singing along. Great!! iTunes here I come. Cachao had an appearance at this festival on his schedule, but sadly, he passed away last month. **** Note: 1. I bought Cachao, Master Sessions Volume 1 (1994) 2. John Santos, who has played with Cachao, lives in the Bay Area and performs with his quintet.
THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF
This deftly acted four-handerâ€”featuring a beautifully restrained performance by William Hurt, a luminous turn by the lovely and supremely talented Maria Bello and a halting but heartfelt young-lovers” pas de deux by newcomers Eddie Redmayne and Kristen Stewartâ€”is a soulful tale of love, loss and redemption set along the blue highways of rural Louisiana. Hurt plays a decent and humble man faltering on the threshold of wisdom, just released from prison but still suffering from the mistakes he made years before. He hitches a ride with a pair of teenagers, who are themselves strangers to each other, and the unlikely trio embark on a stop-and-start journey that leads them in roundabout but inexorable fashion to the aching heart of what they most want and need. In a series of fiery flashbacks as Hurt’s lost love, Bello provides the emotional energy that animates this poignant drama and drives it forward to its joyous conclusion, while Redmayne and Stewart are truly young talents to watch: he with his painful high-strung vulnerability and she with her hopeful beauty and brave composure. Produced by the legendary Arthur Cohn (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Central Station, The Chorus), lushly shot by two-time Oscar-winner Chris Menges (The Mission, The Killing Fields) and masterfully directed by Udayan Prasad (who has had three prior films at SFIFF, and whose Running Late won the 1992 Golden Gate Award for Best Television Feature), The Yellow Handkerchief is a stirring tale of first love and second chances.
From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
Bellissima_”I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I don”t know how I got stuck being a dramatic actress,” confessed Maria Bello, this year’s Peter J. Owens Award honoree for work exemplifying brilliance, independence and integrity. Bello was interviewed onstage at the Castro Friday by Variety columnist Anne Thompson. Known for her fearlessness in playing any role, Bello said she lives by her mother’s words: “If you are at the edge of a cliff, you can either turn and run away or jump and trust that you will be caught.” Tracing the beginnings of her career, Bello recalled moving to New York with $300 in her pocket, a trash bag full of clothes, basement accommodations and a waitressing job. Soon after, she moved to Los Angeles where she landed the career-launching role of Dr. Anna Del Amico on ER. Bello, in her unassuming manner and charming Philly accent, described getting a tattoo with her father. He asked her what was something she could live with for the rest of her life? Bello, who has the Celtic symbol of possession on her hip, recalled the film Out of Africa, where she found a connection with the deer that runs away only to come back. “She was in possession with nothing to defend against. For me it was a symbol of being a woman.” When she asked her father the same question, he replied, “Philadelphia Eagles.” On the wonderful roles she has repeatedly landed, she said, “I think it has to do with not wanting to be 20. I am happy to be 41.” Among her upcoming films is The Private Lives of Pippa Lee where, she said, “I play a manic depressive living on Dexatrin. I am having the time of my life.” —SS
My take — The Yellow Handkerchief followed the tribute, An Evening with Maria Bello. What a lovely person. She was warm and personal and I felt like she was talking to me, unlike some actors who are always performing. The film is touching, we watch the younger pair grow during the road trip south through Louisiana, just as we learn about the older pair through flashbacks. As the film progresses, the flashbacks grow shorter and real time longer until the now catches up with the past and is resolved in a warm and fuzzy, but not unsatisfactory ending. Good luck to the four of you, you”ve worked and grown to make a good life. ****
Fans of the delirious school of Hong Kong romantic fantasies may be surprised to learn that this mild “ghost lover” tale is directed by superstar director Johnnie To, better known to Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking audiences for such “killer” action films as The Mission (1999), the Election series, Fulltime Killer (SFIFF 2002), Exiled (2006) and Mad Detective (2007). Linger shows us a kinder, gentler Johnnie To. It stars Taiwanese pop singer and actor Vic Zhou and mainland Chinese pretty face Li Bingbing in the story of a handsome young student athlete named Dong (Zhou) who dies in a motorcycle crash while playfully chasing the car of a coed named Yan (Li). Three years later, his spirit returns to take care of unfinished business with the still-grieving Yan, now a law clerk defending a brash young man not unlike her late flame, and tears flow amid the memories (this film has more flashbacks than a Deadhead). You Yong, longtime member of the To stock company, costars in the pivotal role of the deceased’s father. Li sings the film’s love theme in voiceover while Zhou beams radiantly. And yes, they have sexâ€”very, very briefly. Want to know what kind of movie sells tickets in China and its satellites? Look no further. This is the prolific Johnnie To’s 48th film as a director.
My take — On Sunday, I saw Linda Blackaby, SFFS Director of Programming, in the lobby and congratulated her on the wonderful films I had seen this year, except I did NOT like Linger. “It doesn”t appeal to everyone,” she said, “but that genre has a huge following.” Many Hong Kong singers act, or actors sing, I found this soundtrack cloying and grating. Oh well, it matched the story, sez I. I couldn”t wait to get out of there. *
USA, Sony Pictures Classics
A hip-hop—loving Upper East Side outcast forms an unlikely alliance with his drug-addled psychiatrist in this clever mix of private school and old school, an audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival and the only chance (hopefully) to see Ben Kingsley make out with Mary Kate Olsen. “I”m mad depressed, yo,” pipes Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a teenage delinquent hoping to survive Giuliani-era New York City while trying to get laid, finish high school and deal weed out of an ice cream cart. Fortunately, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) is ready to sympathize. Like Luke, he’s depressed, girl-obsessed and drug-dependent (even happy to trade sessions for dope). Better still, he’s got a hot daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirby), who surprises us by inviting Luke to the family’s summer home after her parents take off to Barbadosâ€”an offer that promises to lead to if not hot summer nights, at least some lively ones. Director Jonathan Levine (whose debut, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, was the cult hit of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival) benefits from the appealing performances of his younger cast members, especially Thirby’s worldly Stephanie and Peck’s slack-jawed Luke. But it’s veteran Ben Kingsley as the doped-up doctor who truly astonishes. Whether dispensing highly questionable advice or necking with a barely legal Manhattanite (Olsen), Kingsley’s unhinged headshrinker turns the film on its end, proving that no matter how young or old, some men are always sadly and hilariously the same.
From Scoop du Jour (the daily rundown of SFIFF51 activities)
What the Wack?_Jonathan Levine’s award-winning The Wackness, this year’s Festival Centerpiece, played Saturday night to an enthusiastic crowd. The film, set in New York in 1994, is a look back for the director, who graduated from high school that year at a turning point when the world seemed to be offering up everything and nothing at the same time. Levine injects the film with an authenticity of the period by incorporating a bit of himself in the script. “I didn”t really know what I was doing at the beginning,” he admits, “but it became much more of a retroactive process; it was like therapy itself, trying to figure out what was in my head.” For Levine, the word “wackness” sums up how things felt at that point in the “90s. “I thought it captured both the style and the substance of the film, the existential dilemma that our characters are going through,” he said during the Q&A. “I kept waiting for someone to tell me to change it,” he added. “I just put it there but no one knew what it meant.” This prompted several cries from the audience: “It’s perfect!!” —RNA
My take — “I”m the coolness, you”re the wackness,” Stephanie says to Luke in her father’s Fire Island house, meaning she’s living in the present while he’s racing headlong for the future with no ability to live for today. “I just named the film The Wackness, figuring that the money people would change it,” said the director, “but they didn”t.” Essentially a three person film, it’s funny and sad, but mostly funny, and I loved it. **** Yes, this is the 7th **** rating I”ve bestowed — out of 11 films seen so far — and they couldn”t have been more different, but all excellent.