Combustible Celluloid
 

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival

A Report

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

April 23-May 7, 2009

Adoration *1/2
Academy-Award nominated director Atom Egoyan returns to indie filmmaking after a pit stop in Hollywood (Where the Truth Lies), but the result is unfocused and heavy-handed. The main thrust is a desire to say something -- anything -- about terrorism and the 9/11 attacks, but Egoyan's idea makes no sense. For a class assignment, a high school teen, Simon (Devon Bostick -- who looks like a magazine model, with just as much depth), makes up a story about his parents being involved in an attempt to blow up a commercial airline. His teacher (Arsinée Khanjian), also in charge of drama club, encourages him to dig deeper, and also to pretend that the story is real. She also disguises herself in a veil and drops by Simon's house to test his supposedly narrow-minded uncle, Tom (Scott Speedman). A good chunk of the movie involves characters sitting in front of computer screens and listening to people argue about Simon's story -- all of which sounds like rants and platitudes. Rachel Blanchard plays Simon's mom in flashbacks. Egoyan's tone is somber and chilly, as usual, but that approach only makes his scenario all the more puzzling. (April 25)

Le amiche ***
This is a very minor early work from Michelangelo Antonioni, from 1955, and shown in a new print at the festival. Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) travels to Turin to supervise the completion of a new fashion salon, and a young woman tries to commit suicide in the hotel room next door. She becomes involved in the girl's circle of socialite friends, who proceed to gather, talk about men, fall in and out of love, and talk some more. The film has none of the trademark tormented landscapes that distinguished Antonioni's later films. Indeed, it plays more like a 1950s version of The Women, with female characters forever stuck between careers and love, between what they want and what they have. (The latter facet would become a major Antonioni theme.) Despite all this, the film does have some effective melodramatic goop that sneaks up on you. (April 26)

Artemisia *
Director Chiang Hsiu-Chiung got her start working in various capacities with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang -- even acting in Yang's masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day -- and learned absolutely nothing. Her feature debut is timid and tentative and so fretfully controlled that none of the characters come to life. This is further frustrating when their behavior makes no emotional or logical sense. A single mother (Pan Li Li) must deal with a gay son and an unmarried daughter who has shown up with a mixed-race child. Predictably, she fusses and sulks for a while, and then comes through in the end. Worse is the crusty, battleaxe of a grandmother, who is even more bigoted and is defined by her love of money (each and every scene has her talking about money). Chiang initially tries for long takes and wide setups, but panics and cuts away before things get too interesting. Her use of cutting is so pedestrian that you can practically sense the next shot -- and its content -- coming. Perhaps the worst of all is the opening shot of the mother doing tai-chi in the park, with the camera gently swirling and dissolving around her, accompanied by overly dramatic piano strains. (April 26)

Battle for Terra **
Too often the science fiction genre is used as a disguise for war movies, complete with war movie messages. In this dull, dry, 3D computer-animated tale, a race of aliens lives peacefully, looking at life through their big, friendly E.T.-like eyes. Suddenly, an evil race attacks, and they turn out to be human. (The film explains that reckless humans eventually strip-mined their planet dry and had to turn elsewhere for places to live.) Then we get the usual battles and rescues. Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas, Battle for Terra is a bad combination of simple-minded and heavy-handed. And the 3D animation feels practically coagulated in comparison to the fluid, smooth work in Monsters vs. Aliens. Voice talent includes Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, James Garner, Justin Long and Brian Cox as an evil human General Hemmer. (Is it me, or does Hemmer vaguely resemble George W. Bush?) (April 25)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ***
This George Roy Hill film will be presented at the tribute to Robert Redford. One of Redford's biggest hits, it's generally considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, although it's definitely not that good. It's way too cutesy and coy, and I'll never forgive it for that annoying "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" music video interlude. (It's not a real Western.) But Redford and Paul Newman have indelible chemistry and it's often irresistible fun. (April 29)

Ferlinghetti ***
Bay Area-based filmmaker Christopher Felver directed this slight portrait of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who has spent roughly the second half of his life living and working in San Francisco, running the totally independent City Lights Bookstore and publishing all kinds of great stuff under the City Lights publishing wing. One of his first publications was Allan Ginsberg's "Howl," which plunked Ferlinghetti into all kinds of hot water. (According to the movie, Ferlinghetti took the bullet and went to trial while Ginsberg wasn't even in the country; fortunately the good guys won.) The movie also makes the argument that Ferlinghetti is the best known and most widely read of living poets; his "Coney Island of the Mind" has been constantly in print for fifty years. But at only 75 minutes, the film barely scratches the surface of the man. Talking heads tell us about things and clips show the man in action, but new footage of Ferlinghetti today is few and far between, and that much is more reverent than curious. Still, the movie does make you want to read more poetry. (April 28)

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle ***1/2
We've all seen the coming-of-age movie in which a lost twenty-something takes a new job, meets some new people and learns a little something about life (Adventureland comes to mind). But David Russo's The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle moves in an entirely unique direction. I love it, in all its sick, twisted glory. Dory (Marshall Allman -- who looks, sounds and behaves like a younger Ethan Hawke) blows his top at work, loses his data entry job and takes a job as a night janitor to pay the bills. Like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, he searches for solace in religion, trying out several different kinds over the course of the film. Cleaning the trash for a marketing firm, he and his new co-workers discover a cache of experimental cookies that supposedly taste oven-hot when one bites into them. At first the cookies taste awful, but they become quickly addictive, and with lots of weird side effects. (All I can say is that this is not for the weak of stomach.) Vince Vieluf is terrific as Dory's mentor, who makes toilet art on the side. O.C. is in love with Tracy (Natasha Lyonne), who works at the firm. Dory's other co-workers include sexy Ethyl (Tania Raymonde) and stoned Methyl (Tygh Runyan), who like to make love on conference tables before cleaning them. The company's owner is the cross-dressing, Iraq war vet Bergsman (Russell Hodgkinson). (May 2)

In the Loop ***
Armando Iannucci's political satire moves so fast and fires off so many jokes that it may seem cleverer than it really is. But it's definitely a good time. It starts just prior to an armed conflict not unlike the current Iraq fiasco, when a small-time British government minister (Tom Hollander) gives an interview and remarks, "War is unforeseeable." From there, it's a frantic political chess game with all kinds of British and American spin doctors trying to save their jobs and make sure they appear on the side that's winning. (The joke is that none of these people particularly care if anyone goes to war or not.) Peter Capaldi reprises his role of Malcolm Tucker from the BBC TV series "In the Thick of It," the communications director for the Prime Minister; he blusters around in a constant state of superior anger, firing F-bombs as often as he exhales. James Gandolfini is particularly superb as a pentagon desk general. Anna Chlumsky, who was once a little girl in My Girl (1991), also stars in a definite grown-up role. (April 28)

Lake Tahoe ***1/2
When Fernando Eimbcke made his directorial debut with the wonderful Duck Season, he immediately earned comparisons to Jim Jarmusch: black-and-white cinematography, deadpan humor, a distinct lack of forward momentum in the plot. He probably won't shake that comparison with his second feature, the full-color Lake Tahoe, but it doesn't matter. This film is equally wonderful, and besides, how many good Jarmusch imitators are there? In this super-stone-faced comedy, a hapless teen, Juan (Diego Cataño) crashes his car and spends the next 80 minutes trying to find both parts and someone to help make the repairs. Some shops are closed. In other shops, he has to wait for the owners to take naps. He finds one mechanic, but first must listen to a treatise on kung-fu. A girl who runs a part shop wants him to listen to her music and tries to get him to baby-sit her small child. (A scene of a man and a dog eating breakfast together for at least a full minute had me in hysterics.) Eimbcke's world -- sun-baked and lazy and almost devoid of activity or adults -- may seem pointless, but he manages a delightfully complete wrap-up and payoff. (April 24)

Moon ***
The opposite of Battle for Terra, Moon is a science fiction movie based on actual ideas. Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, who is working a three-year shift all by himself on the moon, supervising a new kind of energy mining; giant tractors scoop up powerful gasses, which he then collects and ships back to earth in tiny rockets. His only companion is a robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Communications are down so he occasionally receives pre-recorded messages from his wife and daughter. His shift is nearly up and he's going a bit stir crazy. Distracted, he crashes his moon rover and wakes up later, a bit disoriented, in Sick Bay. He has orders not to go outside, and for good reason. I'll say no more, because what Sam finds outside is truly a mind-trip, bringing into question everything Sam knows. Director Duncan Jones never steps wrong in his use of space and sterile, technological sets (sometimes slightly covered in grime from too much repetitive human contact). I'll admit that Moon sometimes gets a little disturbing and pushes viewers away as often as it tantalizes us and draws us further in. This keeps it from being a great sci-fi picture, but this is a minor quibble; it's still really, really good, and it had me most of the way. (May 3)

Nights of Cabiria ****
This film is showing as part of the tribute to programmer/archivist Bruce Goldstein of Rialto Pictures; he is the recipient of this year's Mel Novikoff award. Fully restored in 1998, Federic Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is a beautiful and heartbreaking film. It works mostly on the strength of Giulietta Masina, who is like a combination of Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin. She can be described as a waif, a powerhouse, a clown, and a princess all in one. Masina plays Cabiria, a streetwalker who has her own small home on the outskirts of Rome. She is dressed in a shabby waist-length fur, a skirt, and bobby-sox. She is adorable and ridiculous looking at the same time. The film opens with a long shot of Cabiria and a man running and giggling with each other near a riverbank. They appear to be a young, carefree couple in love. In the first close-up, the man looks around, snatches her purse, and shoves her in the river. She nearly drowns, and the man gets away. Some locals revive her in a horrible fashion, her limp body tossed and jerked around. When she wakes up, she's not grateful, but angry. Her absolute fury in this scene is a thing to behold (she blows up like a reactor). The rest of the film recounts her mostly disconnected adventures in Rome, looking for love. Most of these episodes begin hopefully and many take a vicious turn, much like Chaplin's forever-doomed quest for happiness. While Chaplin conveyed incredible heartbreak and sympathy in one shot at the end of City Lights, Fellini takes two or three scenes to do the same, but it's just as effective. I believe the end of the film is a hopeful one, as Cabiria walks along a road flanked by musicians and teenagers singing and dancing. Nights of Cabiria may be Fellini's best film for its effortless poetry, its love, and its grace. (May 3)

Once Upon a Time in the West ****
John Ford cast Henry Fonda as a villain only once, in Fort Apache, but Fonda was never quite as ruthless and low-down as he was in Sergio Leone's 1969 epic. Italian master Sergio Leone followed up his Clint Eastwood Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy with the even bigger, bolder Once Upon a Time in the West. Beginning with its stunning, nearly silent ten-minute opening sequence, the film follows a nameless hero known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) on the trail of a cold-blooded low-down dirty dog (Henry Fonda) -- so damn mean he kicks the crutches out from under a crippled man. At the same time, a former prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) turns up just as her new husband and his family are brutally murdered. Jason Robards plays the trash-talking gunfighter who is wrongly accused of the slaughter. As with his other films, Leone concentrates on only the biggest, most operatic moments, and escalates the very smallest gestures -- such as the lighting of a match -- to huge career-making moments. The 165-minute feature doesn't always make perfect sense, but it's a thrill to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. The great Woody Strode appears in the opening scene along with Jack Elam. Future directors Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci co-wrote the screenplay, and Ennio Morricone provides yet another breathtaking score based around Bronson's harmonica. The festival is showing Once Upon a Time in the West in a newly restored print. (May 3)

Our Beloved Month of August ***
This head-scratcher comes from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. If the film is to be believed, he started out with a giant tome of a screenplay about a girl, and her cousin and her over-protective father, but was unable to raise the money to shoot it. So the movie starts like a documentary about rural Portugal, with interviews and great footage of local bands performing on stage. Then, at some point, some of the characters we've met begin to turn into movie characters, and we get our little story of illicit romance and romantic trouble. Our Beloved Month of August is a very long 150 minutes, and it's unwieldy and often frustrating, but ultimately quite rewarding. The final scene is so lovely and mysterious that you'll leave with a smile. (April 25)

Rudo y Cursi **1/2
Carlos Cuaron received an Oscar nomination for co-writing Y tu mam‡ tambiˇn (2001), with his older brother Alfonso, who directed. Carlos now makes his feature debut with Rudo y Cursi, featuring the two charismatic stars of that previous film: Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. They play half-brothers, who are the soccer champs of their rural, flyspeck town. Tato (Bernal) would rather be a singer, and Beto (Luna) has a wife and kids he can't quite support (though he has a full-size arcade style soccer video game in his living room). A talent scout finds them and sends them both to Mexico City, where they each begin playing for rival teams (and earning their title nicknames). They get rich fast, and the movie covers every conceivable clichˇ, as Tato falls for a high class, mover-and-shaker woman and Beto develops a gambling addiction and racks up a huge debt. Then we get the typical: you must throw the game for money gambit. It all has something to do with the boys competing for the love of their mother. And yet, after all this totally expected stuff, Cuaron throws in a rather unexpected ending. To tell the truth, I'm not sure if I admired this tactic, or if it annoyed me. Rudo y Cursi has a lot of energy; it moves quickly and nimbly, and its stars are always fun to watch, but the material just isn't as fresh as the presentation. (April 30)

35 Shots of Rum ****
Following her baffling, free-flowing, poetic epic masterpiece L'Intrus (The Intruder), Claire Denis returns with a relatively simpler, more narrative-based feature, though without sacrificing any of her unique flow. 35 Shots of Rum focuses on an all-black Paris community of friends, relations, former and current lovers and colleagues. Lionel (Alex Descas) is a train engineer and lives with his beautiful, grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop). They don't speak very often, but they share an obviously tender relationship full of hugs and kisses on the cheek. Near the film's beginning, Jo buys herself a rice cooker, and Lionel coincidentally brings one home as well. Jo opens her father's and cooks rice, keeping her own in the package. We meet other characters as well, such as a taxi driving neighbor, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who may be a former flame of Lionel's; the mysterious, withdrawn Noe (Grégoire Colin), who may be carrying a torch for Jo; and some of Lionel's co-workers, including the retiring, depressed René (Julieth Mars Toussaint). Of course, Denis never explains any of these relationships outright; sometimes she plants little seeds of knowledge and other times we just follow dreamily, hooked on glances and exchanges rather than facts. There's more than just a hint of Ozu here as well, with the images of trains as well as the relationship between a single father and a grown daughter, as seen in Late Spring (1949) and a good many other Ozu pictures. Denis's rhythms are perfect for an Ozu tribute; she's more about the acceptance of everyday moments than she is about achieving goals. (May 1)

Tyson ***
Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson previously appeared in two James Toback movies, Black and White (1999) and When Will I Be Loved (2004). Apparently the director and the boxer share a strange kind of friendship, and so Toback's new documentary Tyson promised an undiluted look into Tyson's psyche, deeper than anything we've seen since Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. Unfortunately, it appears that Toback is out to protect and defend his friend as much as anything else, and so -- while Tyson is indeed fascinating -- it's also a missed opportunity. Toback employs offbeat editing rhythms to record Tyson's stories and confessionals, so that dialogue sometimes overlaps from story to story. We hear about his days as a fat kid and how other kids used to steal his glasses. He entered a life of crime and went to prison, where he became interested in boxing. Then he met Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, who was well into his seventies when he took on Tyson as a young, hungry fighter. (Tyson is genuinely moved to tears when talking about his late trainer and friend -- clearly a father figure.) Later we hear stories of drugs and women, his failed marriage to Robin Givens, his rape charge, and the yarn about biting Evander Holyfield's ear. Tyson is surprisingly funny and eloquent (love his use of the word "skullduggery"). Each time, Tyson is sheepish, but forthcoming and apologetic ("I was being a pig"), though sometimes his anger does come through even on camera (especially when talking about Don King). Overall, viewers will get to know more about Tyson than a mere collection of tabloid headlines -- and fight fans will get lots of great ring footage -- but Toback fails to find a bigger picture and leaves us with a fairly unsatisfying ending, worthy of a half-baked TV special. (May 2)

[Untitled] ***
Bay Area filmmaker Jonathan Parker made the very odd, hilarious Bartleby back in 2002; I loved it and declared it a future cult classic, although I'm not sure it counts if only a few dozen other people feel the same as me. Regardless, Parker is back for another try with [Untitled], which is like Art School Confidential without the murders. The new film has that same ultra-black comedy vibe, which means good news for us few fans and bad news for everyone else. Adam Goldberg stars as Adrian, an angry, depressed, genius composer whose cacophonous creations include banging on a piano and kicking a bucket. His brother is a successful painter whose bland works adorn the walls of hotels and hospitals. His dealer, Madeleine (Marley Shelton), takes a liking to Adrian's work, seduces him and lands a commission for him to perform at her gallery. Meanwhile, several other bizarre artists-of-the-moment and collectors drift in and out, and the characters argue intelligently and wittily about what art is, and if it will endure. I don't know the answer to that, but the laughs in [Untitled] made me feel good all day. (April 24)

Zift ***
One of the festival's late show presentations, this slightly twisted, black-and-white Bulgarian film throws in just about everything you can think of, but smoothes out the presentation into a slick, fluid concoction. A ex-con called "Moth" (Zahary Baharov) is released from prison but immediately falls into the hands of some uniformed men who want to know the location of a diamond that Moth supposedly stole. Flashback-filled, the film jumps all over from Moth's pre-prison crime days, his life with his girlfriend, his life in prison and the present: racing around town, carrying a glass eye, with poison in his system trying to get to the bottom of everything. It even has a hint of political commentary for those who want a little depth to their pulp. (April 25)

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