Saturday, April 21
It's a gorgeous spring day and San Francisco's Japantown, home to the SF International Film Festival's two main venues, is in full-on celebration mode for this year's Cherry Blossom Festival. Not that I'll be partaking in any of the fun. In one of those inevitable, overreaching film festival scheduling gaffes, I've booked myself for five back-to-back programs. I enter the Sundance Kabuki Cinema at 1:30 in the afternoon, knowing I won't exit again until Saturday has turned into Sunday.
My first film of the day is also my most highly anticipated of the fest, Yorgos Lanthimos' ALPS. I'm an enormous fan of his previous succèss de scandale, Dogtooth, which is surely the most transgressive film ever nominated for an Oscar®. The story here centers on a quartet of people who comfort grieving loved ones by posing as their recently deceased. Like the über-authoritarian household of Dogtooth, the ALPS organization (yes, named after the mountains) has its own set of bizarre rules and strictures. Despite a few perverse delights, this new film is only mildly amusing and outrageous by less than half – Dogtoothless if you will.
The next two movies are total winners. In The Giants, the latest from actor/director Bouli Lanners, two teenage brothers in rural Belgium are abandoned by their mother and then manipulated into giving up their familial home to a psychotic marijuana farmer. With a third abused teen in tow, this homeless trio hits the road, or rather the river, in a tale of survival reminiscent of The Night of the Hunter. They cross paths with a gallery of uniformly menacing adults, save for one kind woman who briefly takes them in (Swiss actress Marte Keller, perfect in Hunter's Lillian Gish role). Sweet, unpredictable, heartbreaking, hysterically funny and visually arresting, this is the film I suspect will turn out to be my favorite of the festival.
I want to linger in my thoughts following this wonderful movie, but I need to blast off for the next attraction, Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31. I'm surprised to learn it's being screened in the Sundance Kabuki's Houses 7 and 8, the venue's smallest theaters heretofore unused by the festival. (I later learn mid-sized Houses 5 and 6 are being retained by the Kabuki for showing non-festival, first-run features). But what 7 and 8 lack in screen size, they make up for in comfort, with cushier seats, wide armrests and end tables. I'm deeply moved by Trier's follow-up to his memorable debut Reprise. This is an affecting day-in-the-life tale of a 34-year-old recovering substance abuser, half-heartedly grasping for a reason to continue living. It features an unforgettable performance by Anders Danielsen Lie (co-star of Reprise), on whose face we see the weight of someone who's already convinced himself of the hopelessness of new beginnings. I'm also taken by how the city of Oslo is rendered as a character unto itself.
Three down, two to go and it's back to the intimacy of House 8 for ex-Bay Area gadfly Caveh Zahedi's controversial new doc, The Sheik and I. When invited to make a restriction-less film for the Sharjah Bienniel (Sharjah being a sultan-ruled kingdom in the United Arab Emirates), Zahedi arrives only with only a vague idea of how he might stir shit up and then feigns incredulity when stonewalled by local censorship and bureaucracy. Among other things, they veto a chorus line of dancing burka-clad women and a subplot in which the Sultan of Sharjah is kidnapped by terrorists. As annoying as Zahedi can be, there's no denying he's a terrific storyteller and many of his points regarding art and censorship have merit, however belabored. Later in the festival I slip into a Q&A with Zahedi in which he's asked, "What makes a good film?" His reply is "Something edgy. Something complex. Something subversive. Something perhaps unethical."
With only minutes to spare I make a beeline to the Kabuki's largest theater, House 1, fearing I might be too late to secure a seat, any seat, for Peaches Christ's rock n' roll pre-show intro to Ken Russell's Tommy. I'm shocked to discover the downstairs at barely 20 percent capacity and wonder where Ms. Christ's legions of faithful fans could be. Many, I find out, are in the filled-to-capacity balcony, where booze is being served. Despite the small turnout, Peaches performs like she's in front of a sold-out Castro Theatre crowd, knocking out a rendition of The Who's "Pinball Wizard" backed by the amazing Citizen Midnight (a five-piece band comprised of ex-Bridge Theatre workers). I scream myself hoarse to compensate for the small crowd. Then legendary Bay Area faux queen Trixxie Carr rips into "Acid Queen" while Peaches dances and the screen erupts with a Ken Russell career clips reel. I'm pooped when it's all over and opt out of staying to watch Tommy. Miraculously, the 38 Geary MUNI bus whisks me home in 25 minutes flat and it's off to bed in anticipation of another busy day at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival
|(Photo by Tommy Lau)|