SFIFF52 Part I

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival
23 April to 7 May
films of 23 to 26 April


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 time to 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, 16 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.

USA 4/24
Director – Doug Pray
Editor – Philip Owens
Distributed by Sony Classic


At their best great ad campaigns are magic, transcending grubby mercantilism to open new ways of thinking, seeing, being. Doug Pray (Scratch, Surfwise, Hype!) showcases the creative minds behind the most brilliant and influential campaigns of our time.

my take ***** – The film traces the history of creative advertising starting with first creative ad “THINK SMALL” by the Boston agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. They had the crazy idea to have the Artists and copywriters work together. Previously, copywriters wrote the ad copy and sent it to the art department for illustration.
Focusing on the One Club Hall of Fame, Doug Pray interviewed the principals of many of the winning agencies, a pantheon of creativity:
George Lois – Tommy Hilfiger,
Hal Riney – California Coolers. Hal would create a product called Bartles & Jaymes – “It’s Morning in America”
Goodby and Silverstein – Got Milk
Mary Wells – Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
Chiat Day – Apple Computer
Wieden and Kennedy – Nike, Just Do It

I was always awed by the great advertising represented by these men and women… there is so much bad out there.

USA 4/25
Director – Jonathan Parker
Producer – Catherine di Napoli, Jonathan Parker, Andreas Olavarria
Music – David Lang
Cast – Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, Eion Bailey, Vinnie Jones, Lucy Punch
Distributed by Samuel Goldwin Films


Art for Comedy’s Sake_The stars of Jonathan Parker’s contemporary art satire (Untitled) continued to deliver laughs during their onstage appearance after the screening Friday night. Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton and Eion Bailey swapped barbs with Parker and answered questions from the audience.
Parker described being intrigued by the idea of artists that take “a very serious approach to things that seem silly on the surface,” a subtle contradiction which actor Eion Bailey said drew him to the script.
“The screening of the contemporary art satire also welcomed various Bay Area crew members, including “local master of sound design” Richard Beggs, who captured the most, ahem, stimulating, leather squeaks and fabric rustles for the movie. The audience even witnessed a third row cameo from the film’s taxidermy artist—a rarely used credit, to be sure—who was responsible for the stuffed animal monstrosities featured in the film. Asked whether the faux artworks created for the picture were meant to parody any real artists—say, British artist Damien Hirst—Parker said that any affinity with actual art stars is purely coincidental. “Vinnie Jones being cast and speaking with a British accent was coincidental, and the fact that it was taxidermy was coincidental. We had our own taxidermist.” In any case, Parker made it clear that he wasn’t out to ridicule anyone in particular or indict bad art. “I’m a big contemporary art fan,” he said. “You don’t make a movie about it for three years without being a fan.”
The film’s title? Parker let the formaldehyde cat out of the bag on that one: The picture will be released in September as No You Shut Up. —RP

my take **** – There were a lot of witty, funny, send-up scenes. I loved the woman gallery owner and her collection of spectacles, hated the edgy atonal music group. All in all, good, spoofing fun.

It’s Not Me, I Swear!
Canada (Quebec) 4/25
Director – Philippe Falardeau
Cast – Antoine L’Écuyer, Suzanne Clément, Daniel Brière, Catherine Faucher


It’s Not Him, He Swears

Vandalism. Breaking and entering. Arson. Suicide. Not typically the stuff of a movie centered on a ten-year-old boy, particularly one who plays with kites and has a sweet tooth for Fudgesicles. But Léon, the protagonist of Quebec director Philippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me, I Swear!, is one maladjusted mischief-maker, coping with his parents’ separation and his mother’s abandonment to disastrous effect. Falardeau, who appeared at the Festival in 2007 with the farcical Congorama, was careful to ensure his film would “blend humor and drama simultaneously.” The movie opens with an incident that is both horrific and bizarrely amusing, setting the tone for a comedy wrung from tragic circumstances. “The opening scene, it’s absurd,” said Falardeau. “When you look at it, it’s funny. But when you actually think about it, the situation is not funny. And life is like that.” When one audience member commented that he was “profoundly disturbed” by the film, Falardeau noted that “about 20 percent of the audience always has that reaction. But oftentimes a viewer’s reaction to a film says more about his personal experience rather than the film itself.”

my take ****– Carol saw… Loved. I saw Congorama last year, loved that.

Italy 1955 4/26
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni


The international breakthrough of Michelangelo Antonioni in the 1960s, which made him the world’s most notorious cult filmmaker, also largely overshadowed his earlier films, including this gem, which has rarely been shown in this country. Yet in this tale of desperate upper-class Italian housewives are to be found all of the great artist’s concerns embodied in his later, better known works. Antonioni explores the inner lives of female characters with a story that centers around Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who comes from a working-class background but now holds an important position in a fashion salon. While Clelia is on a business trip to Turin, a young woman attempts suicide in the hotel room next door. Clelia befriends her, thus becoming introduced to the circle of her socialite girlfriends, including the cynical Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and the more sympathetic Nene (Valentina Cortese), with their serial affairs and charming but distanced take on life. Nowhere in Antonioni’s films has an ensemble of characters woven a more complex web of relationships. Antonioni’s genius for visual storytelling is in evidence here too, especially in the famous scene involving all the characters at the seashore, their complex relationships echoed in the camera movements, composition and positioning of the actors, the techniques that have set Antonioni apart as a peerless cinematic craftsman. The Cineteca di Bologna has made a new digitally restored print from the original black-and-white 35mm camera negatives, creating the best possible circumstances for rediscovering this underappreciated classic.

my take ***** – Stunningly beautiful in black and white — what do you expect from Antonioni – especially a night shot down a dark narrow street. The characters were all beautiful and impeccably dressed at all times… even on the beach. Quite wonderful.

USA 1974 4/26
Director – John Cassavetes
Cast – Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Fred Draper
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive

A Woman on Castro Street
A Woman on Castro Street

The Woman Continues to Influence_The Castro Theatre was filled to capacity on Sunday afternoon for the screening of what many consider to be John Cassavetes’ best and most demanding film: A Woman Under the Influence. Ross Lipman, senior film preservationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the man responsible for the glorious restored print of the film, was on hand to provide context. Film buffs, take note: Did you know that the film was conceived originally as a cycle of three plays for Gena Rowlands? Or that following the success of the film, Cassavetes was tapped to direct One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but his choice of Seymour Cassel to play McMurphy did not play well with funders. Everyone loves trivia, but it was Lipman’s obvious dedication to his film restoration work that most impressed. He described in detail the painstaking but gratifying task of restoring the film and took a moment to thank Gucci and The Film Foundation, which funded the restoration. He also gave all due respect to two of the film’s major contributors, both in attendance: cinematographer Mike Ferris and composer Bo Harwood, who supplied the striking score.
And finally, the moment everyone was waiting for: Lipman introduced the woman responsible for what he deemed to be “arguably one of the greatest performances in cinema history.” When Gena Rowlands took the stage, the crowd leaped to its feet. “I’m so very happy to be here with you today,” she said. “It’s wonderful to think that a film that we made so many years ago—when many of you here were not born yet—might hold up and continue to be significant in peoples’ lives. I’m thrilled to be here, and I’m sure John would be too to see this marvelous packed house.” —MR


Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) and her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), love each other but are very different people. Nick is a loud and outgoing construction crew chief who doesn’t think twice about bringing the whole gang home unexpectedly for a spaghetti dinner. Mabel is a shy, insecure woman who tries hard to please her husband. In fact, her identity as an individual seems to have disappeared behind the roles she plays as wife and mother. But when others are around, her little eccentricities and nervous ticks become more pronounced. She talks too much and laughs too much and makes people very uncomfortable.
Cassavetes’ penetrating look at a woman beset by mental illness echoes feminist accusations that many women were trapped in lives of claustrophobic domesticity. Long takes and closeups heighten the emotional impact of Mabel’s increasingly bizarre behavior and its effect on her marriage and family. A key movie of the early 1970s, the film stands today as one of the foremost examples of Cassavetes’ unsparing realism. The seeds of today’s family dramas, and indeed, of the contemporary independent film movement, can be found here. The UCLA Film & Television Archive carried out a painstaking restoration process to create this not-to-be-missed new print.

my take ***** – This was the world premier of the new print. Still an amazing film in its new clarity. It’s strange, I clearly remember the construction site scenes and the spaghetti dinner and the interaction between Nick and Mable… I had no recollection of the kids. See it when you can.

USA 4/26
Director – Adam Del Deo, James D. Stern
Music – Marvin Hamlisch, Jane Cornish
Distributed by Sony Classic


In 1974, choreographer Michael Bennett recorded a series of conversations with fellow dancers about their lives spent striving for Broadway greatness. The result was the 1975 smash hit musical A Chorus Line, directed by Bennett and co-choreographed with Bob Avian. Insightful, pitch perfect for its era and packed with witty numbers, the Tony Award–winning production was celebrated for giving voice to the countless young dancers living hand to mouth at the edge of the limelight. Every Little Step picks up three decades later, at auditions for the 2006 Broadway revival with directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo capturing the exhilarating, agonizing casting process in all its nail-biting glory. The filmmakers take full advantage of this opportunity—A Chorus Line is about a grueling audition, after all—seamlessly interweaving audition scenes with vintage footage, interviews and snippets from the unearthed 1974 audiotapes. We are privy to the casting panel’s brutally difficult task of choosing actors who can both embody and refresh well-known roles. The echoes between the present-day process and the musical are endless, and the filmmakers brilliantly tease out the most telling moments. Dancers struggle to show support for each other while fighting tooth and nail for the same part; an egotistical young man feigns nonchalance yet jumps to attention when a casting agent calls his name; a young woman, still chasing her big break, philosophizes that auditioning is like life: You must face your biggest fears in order to stand within grasp of your greatest dream. —Laurie Koh

my take ***** – Actors/singers/dancers auditioning for a musical about actors/singers/dancers auditioning for a chorus line for a Broadway Musical. A Chorus Line is my favorite Musical of all time and this film is a fitting story about how the whole auditioning thing works. Aside from the dancers, we get to see the very people who make the selections and cuts – an animated and smart group of four or five. We’re also told the history of the original idea and its coming to fruition with interviews of the Composer Marvin Hamlish and Creator and choreographer Michael Bennett. A truly awesome experience.


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