Combustible Celluloid

The 50th San Francisco International Film Festival: My Journal


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The oldest film festival in the United States turns fifty this year. It runs April 26 through May 10 at various San Francisco and Bay Area venues. I doubt that with new responsibilities in my life (graduate school and a new baby) I'll be able to top my previous festival record of 40+ movies, but I'll report back with what I manage to see. The following were viewed prior to the festival via press screenings and whatnot.

All in This Tea ***
The legendary, veteran Bay Area documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers) returns with his first film in over a decade, and his first on digital video. Following tea expert David Lee Hoffman on his travels through China, searching for the very finest hand-grown teas, Blank and co-director Gina Leibrecht provide a typically low-key, yet highly engaging experience. Unlike 99% of other documentary filmmakers, Blank lives in the moment, trailing his subjects and capturing details as they happen. There are few talking heads, and even they feel spontaneous rather than staged. Hoffman is a likeable, well-spoken subject, and by the end of the film we long for a nice cup of tea. The great German director Werner Herzog appears for a few minutes and provides the lovely title.

Broken English **1/2
The third of John Cassavetes' children, Zoe Cassavetes, makes her feature directorial debut. Unlike her brother Nick (The Notebook, Alpha Dogs) and her sister Xan (Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession), however, Zoe attempts to walk in her father's massive footsteps, crafting a realistically messy story of a relationship. Nora (Parker Posey) can't seem to find a man, and this lack begins to rule her life. Her best friend (Drea de Matteo) and her mother (Gena Rowlands, Zoe's real-life mother), have all kinds of good advice. Nora meets Julian (Melvil Poupaud) at a party, and though he doesn't exactly light her fire at first, he's very persistent and they wind up spending several days together. The younger Cassavetes deliberately leaves out the romantic spark and the meet-cute that permeate so many other romantic comedies, but she subscribes to many other staples of the genre (such as too many pop music montages). Ultimately, the film is proof that there was only one John Cassavetes, and that it's harder to escape clichés than one may think.

Fay Grim ***
Following in the footsteps of Richard Linklater with his unlikely indie sequel Before Sunset, writer/director Hal Hartley now offers a sequel to his polarizing 1998 film Henry Fool. The film focuses on Henry's wife Fay Grim (Parker Posey); her brother is the now-famous poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), whom Henry once mentored. The whole thing is a colossal joke, expanding the original characters way past their original parameters. Now Henry is considered an international spy, and his highly sought-after notebooks are considered top secret. An FBI agent (Jeff Goldblum) convinces Fay to fly to Europe to find them, while Simon and his publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery) try to work out the complex details at home. It's completely baffling, with tons of expositional dialogue attempting to explain (or to further muddle) the double-crosses, alliances and dirty deeds. But behind it all is a great, deadpan laugh; I like it a good deal more than Henry Fool. Saffron Burrows co-stars as a sexy double agent in a black trenchcoat.

A Few Days Later ***1/2
Already a star from her appearances in Tahmineh Milani's overwrought -- but much beloved -- melodramas, Iranian actress Niki Karimi looked to the grandmaster, Abbas Kiarostami, for directing inspiration. In this, her second feature, she beautifully captures a specific brand of avoidance and understatement. She plays Shahrzad, a mousy graphic designer who becomes distracted at work. At home, her answering machine constantly squawks about her family's health/well-being problems, and her annoying neighbor (Behzad Dorani, from Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us) keeps parking his giant SUV in her space. To her credit, Karimi never shows the expected hospital scenes, tearful goodbyes or tense confrontations that seem to be looming. Instead, she retreats inside the character's head and brings her to a stunningly private conclusion.

The Fisher King ***1/2
Jeff Bridges stars as a despondent radio DJ, dealing with a dreadful mistake he made on the air years earlier. A crazy street person (Robin Williams) who seeks the Holy Grail in Central Park rescues and befriends him. Terry Gilliam's fourth film reeks of punishment after his very expensive flops Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; it's far more conventional and linear than his earlier work, and he apparently lost some measure of creative control as well. And yet it often springs to life with its unique, vivid universe. Not to mention that these emotionally gripping characters were the closest Gilliam had yet come to flesh and blood. (Williams was nominated and Mercedes Ruehl won an Oscar as the DJ's outspoken girlfriend.) The film will show as part of a tribute to Robin Williams, who will receive the festival's Peter J. Owens award for "brilliance, independence and integrity."

Flanders *
The controversial, acclaimed French director Bruno Dumont (L'Humanite, Twentynine Palms) returns with his fourth feature, an unpleasant exercise about the pointless, dehumanization of war, as well as the pointlessness of sex and perhaps even the pointlessness of existence itself. The supremely ugly farmer Demester (Samuel Boidin), with a sloping forehead that touches his eyebrows, who breathes with a noisy, whistle, has sex with his neighbor (Adelaide Leroux) before going off to war. She also has sex with a more handsome soldier. Stationed in the same unit, one of the men gets killed and it may or may not be the other's fault. Dumont shoots with very little dialogue, exposition, movement or frills, and sometimes that's intriguing and poetic, but here it's just numbing.

Hana **
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda once made a mesmerizing and lovingly self-reflexive film called After Life (1998), about people who die and get to make films of their favorite memories before ascending to heaven. His quiet, contemplative style perfectly fit that film, but since then he has been striving for more ordinary successes. I admired his Nobody Knows (2005), about starving children, even though it was overlong and overpraised. I can't say the same for this startlingly routine samurai film, set among a band of Ronin living in a slum. One peaceful young fellow is supposed to avenge the death of his father, but instead spends his time with a beautiful widow and her son. Kore-eda applies the same style to the film, but this time it just drags the story, with its simplistic characters, out to boring proportions. In Japanese.

The Heavenly Kings ***
Bay Area native and Golden Horse award winner Daniel Wu has turned from acting to a comedic directing debut, The Heavenly Kings. Though he treads upon sacred Spinal Tap territory with his phony rockumentary idea, he and his friends Convoy Chan Chi-Chung, Terence Yin and Andrew Lin actually went through with the indignity of being in a boy band, called Alive, recording and performing to conjure up material for this film. Only one of them can sing, none of them can dance, but that doesn't matter in today's music industry, which relies on stylists, choreographers and hired fans (not to mention internet scandals) for success. It's certainly scathing, even if it's only sporadically funny. (The best line involves African rainforests.)

The Iron Mask ***1/2
Douglas Fairbanks was one of the cinema's great showmen. He had an effortlessly cheery, energetic onscreen persona, performing his own Jackie Chan-like stunts, and ran a tight ship offscreen, controlling nearly every aspect of his business empire. In this follow-up to The Three Musketeers (1921) Fairbanks reprises his role as D'Artagnan. Directed by crackerjack action man Allan Dwan, who had also helmed Fairbanks's Robin Hood (1922), the film is not without its breezy, exciting moments, but by this time, Fairbanks was 46 and beginning to slow down. Talkies had begun to draw the curtain on silent pictures, and he seemed to understand that his antics no longer coincided with the times; his D'Artagnan is a bit long in the tooth and meets a less heroic ending than the typical Fairbanks hero. Fairbanks recorded two talking interludes for the film, which only add to its heartbreaking, elegiac nature. (Filmmaker/historian Kevin Brownlow will be present for the screening.)

Jindabyne *1/2
Robert Altman already incorporated Raymond Carver's great short story "So Much Water, So Close to Home" into his 1993 masterpiece Short Cuts. With Jindabyne, Australian director Ray Lawrence (Lantana) has the luxury of more time to explore it, but instead he merely adds on several annoying, external factors that misunderstand the story's center. Gabriel Byrne plays Stewart, one of four fishermen who discover a dead body at their favorite, remote fishing spot. Instead of reporting it, they go about their weekend, and report it when they return. Stewart's wife Claire can't understand what he was thinking. Rather than getting inside the story (which is told from Claire's point of view), Lawrence and writer Beatrix Christian add characters, toss in pregnancies, near-drownings, a leering serial killer, racism and hate crimes, a broken nose and other "dramatic" dialogue as well as a bizarre, "happy" ending. We even see the dead girl before she's killed, driving along and singing to the radio (just like the victim in The Silence of the Lambs).

Murch ***
Despite the fact that he has taken to working with the ultra-boring Anthony Minghella, there's little question that Walter Murch is the greatest film editor and sound designer of all time. In this brief, 75-minute documentary, he discusses some of his strategies (he works standing up) and shares some of his thoughts on filmmaking. The entire film consists of one single shot of Murch's (fascinating) talking head, plus plenty of clips of his work, including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, the re-edit of Touch of Evil, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain and Jarhead. Unfortunately, co-directors David Ichioka and Edie Ichioka fail to resist the temptation to playfully edit their footage of Murch, using jump-cuts, speed-ups and other gimmicks to alter the presentation. Their annoying tricks do nothing but show off, and do little to enhance or affect the content.

Pather Panchali ****
Director Satyajit Ray forever changed the face of India's immense film industry with this uniquely personal, practically homemade trilogy following the lifelong trials and tribulations of a village boy, Apu (played by Subir Banerjee, Pinaki Sengupta, Smaran Ghosal and Soumitra Chatterjee at different ages). The first film chronicles Apu's life in a rural village, the second, his move to Calcutta and the loss of his parents, and the third, his life as a young man and poverty-stricken student looking for romance. Using 16mm black-and-white film and guerrilla filmmaking techniques, Ray created a world where the unpredictable rhythms of real life danced on celluloid. A toothless old woman gums away at fruit, a monkey jumps on an unsuspecting woman trying to get water, and a flock of birds take flight at the moment of death. Just like life, the poetry comes only if you're open to it. A then-unknown Ravi Shankar adds his spirited score to the mix. (This film was an award-winner at the very first SFIFF, fifty years ago.)

Private Fears in Public Places ****
They don't call him a "master" for nothing. Alain Resnais, currently 84, and the author of such certified masterpieces as Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, returns with yet another amazing film. This one is a fairly low-key character study of three men and three women, each looking for love in all the wrong places: a discharged, drunken military vet (Lambert Wilson), his beautiful, patient fiancée (Laura Morante), a real-estate agent (Andre Dussollier), his religious, yet mysterious secretary (Sabine Azema), a bartender (Pierre Arditi) with an aged, senile father and a pretty woman (Isabelle Carre) who answers romance ads. Based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn, the film deftly weaves the six lives together, and each crosses paths with at least two of the others. For his part, Resnais cooks up a theme of physical separation to go with the emotional. Each set is designed with some kind of partition dividing and isolating the characters. And yet the mood remains somehow whimsical and never oppressive. Even if these characters fail to find love, many have at least loved and lost, shining briefly like the snow that constantly falls throughout the story.

Rome Rather Than You ***
Shot in Algeria, Tariq Teguia's Rome Rather Than You shows a startling cinematic brilliance, coupled with highly irritating patches of indulgence. In its tale of an Algerian pizza chef who searches for a visa to move to Italy, it's like a tantalizing mystery house with long, winding passages that lead nowhere. Unfortunately, even Teguia appears to get confused from time to time. In Arabic.

Slumming ***
Two arrogant yuppie pranksters (August Diehl and Michael Ostrowski) ride around categorizing and pigeonholing others, essentially making playthings out of them. Meanwhile, a drunken, derelict poet (Paulus Manker) wanders the streets alternately cajoling or ranting at people. When the pranksters find the poet passed out on a bus station bench, they decide to transport him to a similar bus station bench, across the border, without a passport. Director Michael Glawogger and co-writer Barbara Albert achieve a pleasurable quirky quality with their black comedy, carefully guiding it between the precious and the preachy. Amusingly, they sometimes even present the payoff to jokes before the setup. The film passes easily between immaculate cafes and slush-covered highways, but at its center is Manker's remarkable performance. From Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

Strange Culture ***
San Francisco director and digital pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson (Conceiving Ada, Teknolust) crosses fiction and non-fiction for her astonishing, exasperating third feature. Tilda Swinton plays Hope, a 40-ish woman who suddenly and unexpectedly dies of heart failure. Her husband, Steve (Thomas Jay Ryan), is a professor working on an art project that involves petri dishes full of bacteria (the point is to illuminate the government's ruthless and unsafe experimenting with our food). When the authorities come to take his wife's body away, they also arrest Steve for bio-terrorism. The real Steve appears as himself, and though his nightmare began in 2004, the case is still pending today. At some point, Swinton and Ryan suddenly drop their characters and begin talking as themselves. Peter Coyote turns up to read a transcript from one of Steve's colleagues, and then offers his own comments. Wallace Shawn and Josh Kornbluth also appear (my guess is that Kornbluth, in the fictional side, plays the part that Leeson herself played in real life).

Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project **1/2
The makers of this documentary, Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland, appear to have enjoyed almost unlimited access to photographer Tierney Gearon's life. They capture fierce arguments, crying jags and casual nudity. But ultimately, they don't seem to have any particular reason or conclusion for their finished film. Gearon began by photographing her children (sometimes nude) and found herself suddenly famous with gallery shows in London. The nudity upset many people and gained Gearon a certain amount of infamy. Now she works on her latest project, a series of photographs of her mother, who has some kind of dementia and flies off into bizarre rants. On one level, The Mother Project is refreshing for its lack of form, and it goes a long way in showing who the real Gearon might be, but overall the film seems like only a small chunk in a larger story.

The Unforeseen **1/2
Laura Dunn's new documentary is yet another environmental commentary that the right people are never going to see. This one purports to be different by including interviews with the evil, rich developers, but the film is very subtly slanted away from them. (One developer never shows his face, and instead we see him building model planes with tiny, plastic bombs.) Dunn tells the story of Barton Springs in Austin, TX, where Robert Redford learned to swim as a child. Developers wish to build on this land, which will inevitably cause waste to spill into the clear, natural spring. Over many years, the locals attempt to fight it, while the developers moan over their loss of profits and the constantly changing rules. Dunn relies on the usual talking heads, news footage as well as pretty underwater pictures, and Redford (who co-produced along with director Terrence Malick) participates in a good deal of screen time.

La Vie en rose **1/2
Like every other biopic, this story of Edith Piaf is too long and too jumpy, offering up only a perfunctory, abridged look at a person's life, but also contains a superb lead performance (by Marion Cotillard). The film traces Piaf from teenage years to her drug-addled, booze-ridden, prematurely-decrepit late 40s, and Cotillard (A Good Year) provides the right physical presence for the entire spectrum. The always striking Sylvie Testud plays Edith's best friend, Gerard Depardieu turns in a cameo as her "discoverer," and the beautiful Emmanuelle Seigner plays her savior, a prostitute who cares for the young, abandoned Edith. Caroline Silhol provides that typical biopic nugget, the "cameo" by a famous celebrity, this time Marlene Dietrich. Olivier Dahan directed and co-wrote the screenplay. In French. (This is the festival's Closing Night film.)

The Violin ***1/2
Coming in on the curl of a much-discussed Mexican New Wave, Francisco Vargas checks in with his magnificent The Violin, set in the 1970s. Don Plutarco (Don Angel Tavira) can only play by strapping his bow to his handless stump, while his Guerrilla son fights a secret battle against the ruling military regime. Plutarco winds up serenading a sensitive (but still sinister) Captain, helping his son the best he can. Vargas shoots in luscious black-and-white, switching between hand-held for tension and smooth, still shots for breathtaking rest periods. In one amazing sequence, Plutarco sits by a campfire and explains the origin of war to his grandson while Vargas slowly, slowly tracks over smoldering coals. The 81 year-old Tavira makes his acting debut, and it's his gaping, withered face that gives the movie its mileage.

Vitus **1/2
A child piano prodigy (Teo Gheorghiu) finds life as a genius rather constricting, and so he fakes an accident so that he can live a "normal" life. Bruno Ganz plays the boy's delightful grandfather. Fredi M. Murer's film from Switzerland is way too long and far too precious; Vitus' parents start off as selfish and move on to stupid, while the grandfather is benevolent and kindly to the point of parody. Some of his moments of whimsy seem calculated specifically to cut together a theatrical trailer (watch for the scene in which he and Vitus launch love letters attached to blue balloons). Still, it has a lighthearted touch and fluid sense of music that make it a passable entertainment.

The Yacoubian Building **
I suspect that Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building, from Egypt, sometimes tries to be funny, but it simultaneously tries too many other things. Based on a beloved novel by Alaa Al Aswany and sprawling to almost three hours, it's stuck in that unpleasant place between pleasing the novel's fans and appealing to new audiences. So it falls back into heavy exposition and a kind of middling pace that makes the time crawl by. But it's also full of sweeping crane and dolly shots and, like the similar The English Patient or Sunshine, the film's gargantuan scale will no doubt impress many.

See also: The Men in the Iron Mask and Do You Remember Your First Time? published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

April 26, 2007

Movies Unlimtied