Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SFIFF52 Preview Capsules

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is set to start on Thursday and I'm all amped-up for two weeks of movies, movies, movies. (Coincidentally, that's the same day the line-up for this year's Cannes Film Festival will be announced – the cycle begins anew). I've bought tickets for 23 films, and will probably see several more depending on the vagaries of press ticket availability. Plus, for the first time in 33 years of coming to this festival, I'm actually attending opening night.

What follows are 10 capsule write-ups of films I've been able to preview in the past few weeks, listed in order of most favorite to least. Those with "HR" designations are "Hold Review" titles – films with U.S. distribution for which I'm restricted to 75 words. Following that are some random comments on six other films I've seen. All were seen on screener DVDs, with the exception of (Untitled), Tyson and Adoration, for which I attended press screenings.

Oblivion (Netherlands, dir. Heddy Honigmann, HR)
A Lima bartender likens recent Peruvian elections to a choice between Hepatitis B and AIDS, while spinning a hypnotic allegory comparing the country's history to a badly mixed Pisco Sour. He's one of many charismatic raconteurs in this eloquent documentary about the resiliency of Peruvians – shopkeepers, waitresses, traffic-light acrobats, frog juice vendors – and their sad legacy of electing leaders unworthy of them. Direct but not didactic, heart wrenching but not hopeless, this humanist portrait is perhaps the best film yet from Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Honigmann.

Wild Field (Russia, dir. Mikhail Kalatozishvili)
In the middle of an isolated steppe somewhere in Kazakhstan, a young doctor single-handedly administers a dilapidated field hospital. Lacking proper instruments and medicine, he's relies upon crude ingenuity. A comatose drunk gets a hot branding iron to the stomach. A cow that swallowed a tablecloth is given 100 doses of laxative meant for humans. A woman with a bullet wound to the stomach is laid out on a slab of rock, the slug pulled out by the doctor's bare hand. Between these sporadic emergencies are scenes of solitary downtime – washing clothes, reading, sending Morse code messages and occasionally riding his motorcycle to a mailbox in the middle of nowhere. There are occasional visitors, such as the flirtatious daughter of a local bigwig. And in one of several light metaphysical touches, someone (or some-thing) is observing him from a nearby mountaintop. All of this adds up to a film experience that's alternately gripping and meditative, strange and powerful. The barren landscapes of the Kazakh steppes are stunningly photographed, making me truly regret having to miss seeing this on a big screen during the festival.

The Window (Argentina/Spain, dir. Carlos Sorin, HR)
My favorite Argentine director returns to SFIFF with this lovely tale of an old man's earthly farewell. At a remote Patagonian hacienda, bedridden Don Antonio dictates the preparations for a visit by his estranged son, a famous European pianist. Amidst the hubbub, he eludes his vigilant housekeepers and slips out for a fateful final stroll in the fields, reconnecting with life's pleasures (like pissing in the breeze). Elegant, nuanced, leisurely, melancholy, reflective, humorous and masterful.

Our Beloved Month of August (Portugal/France dir. Miguel Gomes)
45-minutes into this 2 1/2 hour film, I was longingly eyeing the DVD eject button. Thus far, I had only seen a messy, scattershot collage of rural Portugal – scenes of disparate odd characters, religious processions, boar hunting and quoits playing, outdoor music festival clips, some pretty scenery – and most tellingly, on-screen arguments between the filmmaker and his producer. At the one-hour mark, a narrative finally emerged in the form of a troubled romance between two young musicians/cousins. And by the end, I found myself completely seduced by this marvelously complex film and its vivid portrait of a specific place in our world. It generously rewards the patient viewer; all that miscellany in the first hour comes into play later. It's a film I'd eagerly see again if given the opportunity. One caveat…it helps to have an appreciation, if not a tolerance, for earnestly sung, slightly cheesy MOR/Lite-Rock ballads.

(Untitled) (USA, dir. Jonathan Parker, HR)
The world of contemporary art – its artists, gallery owners and collectors – gets mercilessly lampooned in this shrewd and hilarious satire. Adam Goldberg stars as a modernist composer who steals his brother's girlfriend, a gallery owner fond of noisy clothing. Her star artist (Vinnie Jones) makes installation pieces featuring taxidermy and household appliances, and her biggest customer is a dot-com zillionaire who views collecting art as "intervening in cultural history." Chock full of fabulously quotable lines you'll be struggling to remember as you exit the theater.

The Other One (France, dir. Pierre Trividic, Patrick Mario Bernard)
Anne-Marie is a capable, 47-year-old social worker who casually decides to let go of her younger, African-immigrant lover. When he takes up with another older woman, however, she becomes progressively unhinged by jealously, paranoia and self-loathing. You'd swear the part was written for Isabelle Huppert, but Dominique Blanc gives a vulnerable, riveting performance for which she won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It's a role not lacking in histrionics, but Blanc and the filmmakers mostly sidestep a descent into cheap melodrama. The film itself is highly stylized and engaging to watch – with its constricted urban setting, jagged narrative structure and unsettling music score.

Kimjongilia (USA/South Korea/France, dir. N.C. Heiken)
I'm not sure why (perhaps because of the photo in the festival catalog), but I was expecting this film to be a fun romp through the excesses of North Korean mindset. You know… the campy propaganda films, bizarre military parades and cast-of-thousands stadium spectaculars fetishising the cult of Kim(s) Il-sung and Jong-il. Although those things are interspersed throughout, what we mostly have here are harrowing personal tales recounted by North Korean escapees. We hear firsthand about life in the most isolated country in the world; the mass starvation and the labor camps. If someone is arrested, three generations of their family get "purged." We hear escape stories – from a man who was inspired by a smuggled copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, to a woman who was sold into years of sex slavery after escaping to China. The documentary makes good use of limited archival materials to trace the history of North Korea, from Kim Il-sung's birth in 1912 to the present. Several modern dance sequences visually complement the words of the interviewees. This film should be of interest to all Californians, as we get closer to the possibility of being within striking distance of North Korean long-range nuclear missiles.

Mid-August Lunch (Italy, dir. Gianni di Gregorio, HR)
Representing a 180º reversal in subject matter, the screenwriter of Gomorrah makes his feature directing debut with this story of a put-upon, middle-aged Roman bachelor (played by the director) forced to take care of four old ladies during the Feast of the Assumption holiday. Even people allergic to movies about cute n' cranky old people should find this surprisingly agreeable, at least until the groan-worthy end credits sequence. Slight, but satisfying – and at 74 minutes not a second too short.

Tyson (USA, dir. James Toback, HR)
I have zero interest in sports and am appalled by the very notion of boxing. That said, I found this self-reflective portrait of notorious ex-heavyweight champ and pop culture miscreant Mike Tyson a very compelling watch. This is 100% Tyson on Tyson – surveying his warts-and-all life and career in on-screen interviews and voiceover. He's extraordinarily forthright and self-aware in discussing his childhood and rise to fame, at times choking back tears. When it comes to the later headline-grabbing stuff, however… not so much.

Modern Life (France, dir. Raymond Depardon)
This is the third look at the changing face of agrarian France from the country's leading documentary filmmaker. I didn't see the first two films, which is perhaps one reason I found this less than captivating. Depardon revisits many of the same farmers he profiled in L'approche and Daily Life, and they're a reticent bunch, often giving one-word answers or staring silently into the camera. The most interesting narrative thread belongs to the Privat brothers, octogenarian dairy farmers who handed responsibility over to a nephew and are deeply resentful of his non-farmer wife. Most memorably, Depardon transitions each interview with a traveling shot of the rural road connecting one farm to next. Filmed in different seasons and at varying times of day, they give the viewer an extraordinary feel for landscapes of rural France. Personally, I hope the next Depardon film I see is return look at France's criminal justice system à la Caught in the Act, Faits Divers and 10th District Court.

In Pierre Scholler's methodical Versailles, Guillaume Depardieu gives a credible performance as an urban forest-dwelling vagrant reluctantly made caretaker and surrogate father to a homeless boy. As a Francophile, I mostly found myself drawn to the film's take on the French social services system. Sometime last year, I watched a screener of Norwegian director Pierre Scholler's redemption tale Troubled Water, and was very impressed with the disorienting, but brilliant narrative P.O.V. shift made halfway through. This compelling film is about a young church organist who committed a horrible crime in his youth. I've never been a huge fan of Canadian director Atom Egoyan's perversely arch style (the exception being 1993's Calendar), and his latest film Adoration is no exception. He takes on an overloaded mishmash of contemporary issues and ideas – terrorism, religion, identity, memory, communication in the internet age – all of which set my eyeballs a-rollin' with each new ludicrous plot twist and character revelation. In Celia Murga's purposefully inert A Week Alone, a group of rich Argentine kids kill time while their folks are away. The arrival of a lower class youth (the teenage brother of the housemaid caring for the kids) adds some sorely needed drama, but even that's kept low-key. I really wanted to love Zift, Javor Gadev's wildly ambitious Bulgarian black comedy about the deep shit a man gets into upon release from prison. Copulating praying mantises, a diamond hidden in the penis of an African fertility statue and even a parody of Rita Hayworth's big number from Gilda are just a few of the deranged ideas contained in the film. Unfortunately, their execution comes off labored, and there's an over-reliance on first-person narrative voiceover. Despite these shortcomings, however, the film is very much worth having a look at. Proving that the craze for docu-fiction hybrids has gone world-wide, we have Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional, in which a filmmaker documenting an out-of-town Filipino religious festival inadvertently becomes confessor to a corrupt, murderous ex-mayor of Mindinao.


Maya said...

Great capsules, Michael! You steer my attention to some films I wasn't even considering.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks, Maya. I'm looking forward to sharing the festival with you for a 14th consecutive year!