San Francisco International Film Festival 52
23 April to 7 May
films of May 4 to 7
A really busy 15 days… besides the Festival, The American Institute of Architects National Convention was in San Francisco – I volunteered there three days – and we had tickets to a Giants game. I volunteered for two days of the Festival, but didn’t have enough time cash in my freebie tickets. We took a different approach this year. Carol and I picked films and bought tickets using CineVouchers. We covered every day of the Festival except opening night which included a party and cost $60.
We saw more films than ever – 20 for me, 18 for Carol, including 14 together. Eric was in town for a week in the middle and joined us for 4 films. All in all, together we saw 22 different films. Good times, and we never really felt burned out. Carol bagged two films, but I sold her tickets to the Rush Line for a profit.
Reviews and ratings – I copied the film descriptions from the online Film Guide or the Daily Scoop – shown below in block quotes – and appended “my take.” Stills are from the Film Guide, pictures from my camera. I rated the films * to ***** mainly for my own reference. Films that have distribution are noted. Enjoy.
CALIFORNIA COMPANY TOWN
Director and everything else – Lee Anne Schmitt
A recording of a school choir’s last performance before the Eagle Mountain mine closes and the town is abandoned. A hulking prison—California’s largest—dominates the failed social experiment of California City. An oil refinery belches pollutants over Richmond, the state’s murder capital. These are some of the raw materials that form Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town. In blending the sights and sounds of 14 specific locales, Schmitt attempts to create a catalogue of the state’s economically depressed towns, industrial wastelands and failed utopian communities. But, she says, “The film is less about individual histories of towns—any place in the state could be in the film. We all live in company towns.” Of her attempt to question why and how certain communities fail, Schmitt says, “I think of this as an archive. And this is, as all archives are, a subjective and flawed way of looking at history.” Silicon Valley—the thriving company town of today’s global economy—is provocatively featured as the caboose to Schmitt’s series of cities. When asked if her inclusion of the Google campus within an archive of failed communities is meant to foretell Silicon Valley’s ultimate demise, Schmitt demurred. “I never answer that question. Silicon Valley is the place I least like to talk about. Because it is not really a place—it’s an idea of a place laid upon other places with their own pasts. Some people find the footage atrocious, some find it positive. I guess that depends on your point of view.”—JP
my take *** – I didn’t get it. I understood the demise of the logging towns and the mining towns, but Richmond, Silicone Valley? When pressed, Lee Anne Schmitt would only say, “I spent three years shooting and a year editing and re-shooting.” It’s a very personal film and maybe she understands it, but it doesn’t communicate. That said, I’m glad I saw it… some of the photography and scenes are stunning.
dir Ursula Meier
cast Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaïde Leroux, Madeleine Budd, Kacey Mottet Klein
As upbeat, jazzy music sets the mood for fun, a happy family in roller skates finishes the match point of a hockey game played out on a strip of nondescript tarmac. Thus begins Swiss-French filmmaker Ursula Meier’s debut feature, Home—in stark contrast to what lies ahead. Marthe (Isabelle Huppert), Michel (Olivier Gourmet) and their three children live a peaceful existence in a remote house that borders a long-unused stretch of highway. When the route one day suddenly opens to commuters, this bohemian clan’s daily routine is thrown into disarray: Ever-sunbathing Judith must endure the catcall honking that overpowers her portable stereo, while it quickly becomes impossible for the younger children, Julien and Marion, to safely “cross the street” to catch their school bus. What begins as annoyance and inconvenience, however, soon crosses over into paranoia, as the incessant traffic noise leads to sleep deprivation and fears concerning prolonged exposure to exhaust loom large. Refusing to relocate, and in an obstinate yet futile attempt to maintain some semblance of the normality they once enjoyed, Marthe and Michel increasingly resort to isolationism and a literal blockade. Alternately tense, touching, absurd and frightening, Home is an invasion movie of another sort—where the space crafts are vehicles and the aliens are ordinary motorists. With its unique style, dark humor and tragic-hopeful denouement, Meier’s film is sure to be one of the most discussed of the Festival.—Jeremy Quist
my take ***** – I was mesmerized as the lives of the likeable and fun loving characters disintegrated before my eyes. In the Q and A, Ursula Meier made reference to Hitchcock’s Birds; one bird, a few birds, no big deal, one can adapt. A deluge of birds, one goes from adaptation to madness. There wasn’t one moment of transformation; this was a comedy building to drama, anxiety and ultimately horror, until… they walk away from their home. A long version of Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind played over the closing credits. Perfect.
CAN GO THROUGH SKIN
Director – Esther Rots
Music – Dan Geesin
Cast – Rifka Lodeizen, Wim Opbrouck
Life hangs by a very fine thread. Marieke, a young Dutch woman, is shattered by a random act of violence in Amsterdam. She moves to a decrepit shack in the country with unclear hopes of finding peace, but what she finds is quite different. The first feature from director Esther Rots (who also wrote and edited) creates a haunting world of dread and isolation that slowly is dissipated by intimations of light and hope as the film progresses and the seasons change. In a hypnotic performance, actress Rifka Lodeizen commands virtually every scene as we witness her mental disintegration mirrored by her decaying surroundings. As she plans her revenge with a cryptic online confidante it becomes unclear as to what is real and what might be hallucinated. An unlikely friendship with a local farmer slowly begins to open her up and alleviate her loneliness and grief. The technical brilliance of this film is manifest in the soaring, complex sound design, ranging from swirling abstract tones to plaintive female voice and piano, and the extraordinary cinematography, which captures every detail of the beautiful rural Dutch landscape and gritty dark urban spaces with exquisite finesse. Exploring what happens when one’s basic sense of safety is ripped away by an irrational act, Can Go Through Skin is a promising and stimulating debut from a gifted filmmaker.
my take ***** – I ticketed this film because of that picture. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was confused; where is this going? How will this end? The ending didn’t help much. In the Q and A following, the director said it was OK to be confused, she wanted us inside Marieka’s head, and Marieka was confused. As I looked back and Carol and I discussed the film, things didn’t exactly become clear, but the power of Rifka Lodeizen’s acting, the settings, the music, the story came through. Not your casual fun film, but an awesome experience.
An Enormously Endearing Filmmaker_
“When you are paranoid, you know that nothing is real, you do not believe in anything,” explained Argentine director Gabriel Medina, who came to SFIFF to present his first feature The Paranoids. The film’s protagonist is a painfully insecure but enormously endearing screenwriter. “Luciano is like me and my friends,” said Medina, who speaks and gestures a lot like his character, listens to the same music and even has a similar haircut. The director struggled with the ending of the film. “I didn’t know how to get there,” he recalled. “I wanted Luciano to make a decision to change his life.” Medina made some unusual narrative choices in his film; a critical confrontation is disguised as a videogame, and the characters express love by dancing together. “I like to tell things without talking too much,” said Medina. The director is inspired by classical cinema; among his influences—Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, William Wyler and Andrei Tarkovsky. “I can imagine you did not find traces of Tarkovsky in this movie,” quipped Medina. “But the way he uses the time and camera, his religious philosophy of filmmaking—I believe in that.” —MB
my take **** – I didn’t like Luciano much in the first third of the film. He just can’t finish. He’s a coward afraid to face the realities of life and he knows it; in short, paranoid. He relies on his boyhood friend Manuel for his apartment and occasional screenwriting gigs. In return, Manuel treats him like a rented mule. Manuel produced a hit TV series in Spain, The Paranoid, with the lead character based on Luciano… he even used his real full name. This is too much. Manuel goes to Chile to promote the Argentine adaptation of The Paranoid, and leaves his beautiful girlfriend, Sofia to stay with Luciano. They warm to one another. He summons the will to finish his screenplay and at a party celebrating Manuel’s return, the gumption to dance with Sofia. Their dancing leaves no doubt about their affection for one another and leaves Manuel clearly on the outside.
“Have I ever done anything to really hurt you?” asks Manuel. The answer to that has been clear throughout the film.
THE LOST WORLD with DENGUE FEVER
Dengue Fever’s repertoire isn’t simply Cambodian music or a Cambodian/American hybrid. Bollywood glitz, psychedelic rock, spaghetti Western twang, klezmer, ska, funk and Ethiopian jazz all contribute to the band’s unique sound. Singer Ch’hom Nimol’s powerful singing voice, in Khmer and more recently also English, is a luminous vibrato that adds exotic ornamentations to her vocal lines and complements the band’s driving sound.
The Lost World
CREDITS director – Harry O. Hoyt,
Music – Dengue Fever, cast – Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone
Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, The Lost World revels in adventure-flick thrills but is equally effective as a cinematic document of our fascination with our own prehistory. Featuring amazing stop-motion sequences by animation pioneer Willis O’Brien, who later animated King Kong, and enlivened by outlandish costumes and sets, this dyno-dino epic was a smash hit upon its release in the mid-Roaring Twenties. An explorer’s journal points to the existence of dinosaurs in a far-flung locale, so reporter Edward Malone makes a deal with the robust Professor Challenger and joins a pseudo-scientific expedition to find the mythical monsters. Vicious battles with a menagerie of real and imagined creatures ensue. If only Malone and his fellow explorers stopped to consider the grave consequences before hauling a mad-as-hell Brontosaurus back to their ultramodern metropolis. While the film exemplifies groundbreaking cinematic techniques and razzle-dazzle storytelling, it also serves as a reminder of (hopefully) obsolete American attitudes toward the big, bad world at large. Amid its now dissonant charms are anachronistic cultural stereotypes regarding science, marriage and race (complete with a white actor in blackface). Dengue Fever’s score playfully and lovingly evokes worlds both known and unknown and elevates the The Lost World’s offbeat humor and singular beauty.—Sean Uyehara
my take **** – Boy becomes man, gets girl. Dinosaurs run amok and a volcano erupts. What more could you want? The music was perfect for the film, but the film print was sketchy.
Cub reporter Ed is smitten by the fair Gladys and asks her to marry him. She says she wants to marry a manly man who has faced danger and adventure.
Ed finagles his way onto a trip with Professor Challenger in search of dinosaurs in the lost world of the far reaches of the Amazon River. In order to raise money, the trip is billed as a rescue mission for one of Challenger’s colleagues, Dr. Brown, who was captured on the last trip. Dr. Brown’s daughter, the lovely Ellen, kept a journal of their exploits, so she accompanied the band of scientists and the reporter.
Needless to say, forced together in wild adventure and danger, Ed and Ellen fall madly in love, but Ed had promised Gladys he would return to marry her.
Back in London, having faced dinosaurs and returned the victor, Ed meets Gladys, who introduces her husband, Mr. Chamberlain. Ed asks, “and what danger has Mr. Chamberlain faced to earn your love?”
“That was just a childish whim,” Gladys replied, “Mr. Chamberlain is a clerk and hasn’t been outside of London in his life.”
Ellen and her father standing nearby overhear this exchange. Ed rushes to Ellen and all is right with the world.
35 SHOTS OF RUM
dir Claire Denis
cast Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogué
Claire Denis has created a sensual and contemplative body of films over the years, but nothing in her work prepares us for this deeply emotional yet light-of-touch story set among a small circle of Parisians and their friends. In fact, Denis evokes nothing so much as Eric Rohmer in his “seasons” quartet as she follows the various characters in a roundelay of relationships that touches on almost every kind of love there is: father-daughter, old lovers, old colleagues, absent mother, lost sister, unrequited, one-night, budding, brooding . . . Lionel (Alex Descas), a train engineer, shares an apartment with his daughter Jo (Mati Diop), a university student. In the same building live taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) and a young man who comes and goes, Noe (the intense and always mysterious Grégoire Colin, like Descas a Denis regular). Together, they are a kind of family. We figure out their roles and relationships only gradually as Denis leaves crumbs along her narrative path for us to follow—it’s one of the great pleasures of this extraordinarily pleasurable film made up of small moments, of looks and silences, of magical touches of physicality and pensiveness. Agnés Godard’s cinematography richly limns an interior architecture in which objects take on an Ozu-like delicacy and immediacy, and uses train tracks (and cars and motorbikes and vans) to propel the story into the out of doors and eventually, the future, as father and daughter face the inevitable: her independence.—Judy Bloch
my take * – Two words: dogs breath. No life, no beauty, dirge music; what a downer. Congratulations to the Marketing Department for filling the big house at the Kabuki.
dir Alexis Dos Santos
cast Déborah Francois, Fernando Tielve, Michiel Huisman, Iddo Goldberg, Richard Lintern
Distributed by IFC
CLOSING NIGHT The youthful, sensuous and beautifully assured second feature from Argentine filmmaker Alexis Dos Santos (Glue, 2006) is a lyrical tale of two solitary expats, wayward young souls crossing paths in the cosmopolitan art-rock milieu of a sprawling East London squat. Twenty-year-old Axl (played with striking, reckless innocence by a superb Fernando Tielve) has come from Spain to find his long-lost English father. Raised traveling, Axl’s rootlessness has become a restless way of life. He drinks himself into forgetting at night, awaking like a promiscuous foundling among another set of nonchalant hosts and lovers. Meanwhile, posing as a student in need of housing, he hires his realtor father but hovers on the edge of revealing himself. Vera (an achingly vulnerable, gently arch Déborah François) is a wounded French-speaking beauty who oozes continental ennui at her bookstore job—where she’s not above discouraging a customer from buying a book she finds ridiculous. Responding to a stranger’s flirtation by wrapping caution and control in adventure and mystery in pursuit of a casual affair, she finds herself falling (like him) desperately in love. Visceral yet dreamlike, Unmade Beds lolls moodily and infectiously in a fluid visual style, heightened by a stirring soundtrack featuring cameos by contemporary U.K. bands. When Axl and Vera finally meet, the encounter is both decidedly low-key and deeply resonant, a drunken tête-à-tête between strangers wearing costume animal heads. It is Dos Santos’ sly, pitch-perfect nod to both our most basic natures as well as the masks we hide them behind. —Robert Avila
my take ***** – “Two lost souls on the highway of life…” comes to mind. The audience is immersed in the London scene of twentysomethings from many nations and cultures coming together in debauchery. At the same time we are allowed to see the vulnerabilities of Axl and Deborah as they wend their way to discovering themselves, and in the end, each other.
Alexis Dos Santos and Fernando Tielve were on stage for the Q and A after. By their looks and dress, they had just stepped out of the film.