Combustible Celluloid

The 2004 San Francisco IndieFest

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The San Francisco IndieFest is always the first festival to pop up in the New Year, and it's always one of the most welcome. After a season of Oscar hopefuls and a January full of near-reject teenybopper films, the festival's cutting edge is a welcome breath.

Astonishingly, the festival has gone high-profile this year with such big-time filmmakers as Alex Cox (Revengers Tragedy), Takashi Miike (Gozu) and Bill Plympton (Hair High). Even a big time star like Colin Farrell makes an appearance in the ensemble piece InterMission.

Not to worry. Every independent film festival in the country threatens to get too big; the Sundance film festival gave way to the Slamdance film festival, which itself got too big and gave way to even smaller fests. But the SF IndieFest is still a seat-of-your-pants treat that, even after half a decade, still feels scrappy and hungry.

Here are seven selections from this year's fest:

Break a Leg (Feb. 5)
One can see how this fun little idea, the festival's Opening Night Feature, got past the pitch meeting stage, but the actual film leaves quite a bit to be desired. An unemployable actor begins attacking -- and sometimes accidentally killing -- his potential competition for certain roles. Actor John Cassini co-wrote the screenplay, presumably with himself in mind, and his desperation comes across all too clearly. It's off-putting. Not to mention that he's not the most charismatic guy in the world. Still, co-stars Jennifer Beals, Molly Parker, Kevin Corrigan, Sandra Oh and Eric Roberts perk things up from time to time, making it a fairly passable pic. Hopefully the festival's opening night party will help make up for it.

Corner of Your Eye (Feb. 11 and 15)
Paul (Drew Lanning) invites Sam (Aaron Ross) for a cup of coffee, but actually passes on a psychological sickness in which they see eyes in every corner of the room. They also have nightmares in which they blow each other's heads off or gather at a theater to watch a magic show. More people get the disease and more people turn up at the magic show. Sam sometimes has a girlfriend, Sarah (Nancy Stone) and sometimes not. Sometimes it's "six months later." Director Jesse Spencer directed this local film as his feature debut, and it's a real head-scratcher, fascinating at times, and more than a little queasy. The film comes packed with a clever sound mix and a creepy score, but one can't help but think that the limited special effects and set design might have limited its impact.

Funny Ha Ha (Feb. 10 and 14)
This first feature by Andrew Bujalski is easily the festival's most unforgettable work. Following a loose band of post-graduate twenty-somethings in Boston, Bujalski manages to create an entire screenplay in which not one word actually means anything. Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) tries to get over her crush on Alex (Christian Rudder), while blandly making out with other boys, getting a new job and making a list of ways to improve her life. Characters get together and "talk," but they're mostly just killing time. In other words, Bujalski has ventured closer to the way that intelligent, bored, lost people live than anything since, say, Lost in Translation.

Hair High (Feb. 14)
Twisted animator Bill Plympton's fourth feature film is also his least inspired, but it's still very much worth a look. Few modern animators share Plympton's imagination, bravery or sheer depravity. Hair High tells a Grease-like tale of a new kid, Spud (voiced by Eric Gilliland) who has a run-in with the most popular couple in school, Rod (voiced by Dermot Mulroney) and Cherri (voiced by Sarah Silverman). Spud and Cherri eventually fall in love and Rod gets his revenge on prom night. It doesn't end with a magical dance-floor kiss, though. It ends with hideous waterlogged zombies invading the prom. Plympton's previous films were attempts at the musical (The Tune), a horror/sex farce (I Married a Strange Person) and sci-fi (Mutant Aliens), and it appears the 50s high school movie is just too limited for him. Other voices include David and Keith Carradine, Martha Plimpton (who also co-produced), Tom Noonan and Ed Begley Jr.

Olive or Twist (Feb. 8 and 14)
This local film describes itself as a docudramedy. It's a kind of history of the martini, partly fact, partly fiction, and all lots of fun. Director Peter Moody shows us his basement martini lounge, traces the roots of the drink, compares it to Tiki drinks and dresses up as a giant martini. The film also gives handy tips for ordering at Haight Street's Zam Zam Room. We meet a variety of folks, from San Francisco restaurateur Ed Moose to Hal Lipset, who was the inspiration for the Gene Hackman character in The Conversation. Be prepared to spend a few hours afterward at the nearest bar.

Revengers Tragedy (Feb. 5 and 11)
Due to a technical glitch, I only caught a few minutes of this new film by English auteur Alex Cox, best known for Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, but whose more recent films never seem to find an audience. Revengers Tragedy does a kind of Baz Luhrmann by taking a 400 year-old play (by Thomas Middleton) and setting it in a kind of horrific future-tense England. Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later) stars as the hero, who lives with his murdered bride's skull and vows revenge on the evil Duke (Derek Jacobi). One-hit wonder band Chumbawumba provides the film's score.

Running on Karma (Feb. 6)
Andy Lau (Fulltime Killer) stars as a monk-turned-bodybuilder called Big who can "see karma" and wears an almost-convincing foam muscle suit. He becomes involved with a murder case involving an Indian man who can twist himself up like a pretzel and a cute lady cop, Yee (Cecilia Cheung). Big sees that Yee is a reincarnated Japanese killer and will eventually die for her "crimes." It's all a little baffling, but -- as directed by Johnny To (The Heroic Trio) -- Running on Karma strikes the right tone between humor and action, and comes up with some truly spectacular scenes, not the least of which has Lau demonstrating his kung-fu skills on a Kleenex. In Cantonese with English subtitles.

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