San Francisco International Film Festival highlights
(above, left to right: Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff.)
By Richard von Busack
As befits a dignified if aged 54 year old film festival, this year’s SF International Film Festival has its moments of vitality, set against the sunset glow of the tradition on the way out…a tradition, that is, of people actually going to the movies.
Christine Vachon, a regular guest, comes to give the State of the Cinema address…and maybe to explain why the natural destination of the work she produced, Mildred Pierce, was HBO instead of theaters.
Other marquee guests are Oliver Stone, as well as the tedious, seemingly unkillable performance artist Matthew Barney (last seen making fisherman’s chum out of himself and Bjork in Drawing Restraint #9).
The lovely Zoe Saldana, famous for playing an azure giraffe-woman in Avatar, arrives for a visit. So does Frank Pierson, scripter of 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon; what he has to say about the late Sidney Lumet will be worth hearing.
There’s a salute to Leonard Cohen with the documentary Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen (1967); “Mr Cheerful’s” 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony is illustrated with 11 short films.
Silent movie preservationist Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films gets the Novikoff Award; he’s presented a collection of restored short films in 3D, including the Bugs Bunny Lumber-Jack Rabbit (1954)
La Dolce Vita screens (May 1 at 12:30 at the Castro Theater), and the Tindersticks’s Stuart Staples making a live accompaniment to clips from Claire Denis. Also coming up are films by directors Catherine Breillat, Raul Ruiz and Takeshi Kitano, as well as a restored Fassbinder (his 214 minute 1973 World on a Wire gets in on the ground floor of cyberpunk.)
Films recommended, even with caveats, get the asterisk:
*Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog does his strangely affecting “the last man on Planet Earth” style narration as he records a tour of the Chavel-Pont D’Arc caves in Ardeche. These caverns, containing the oldest known prehistoric art, were sealed by a landslide for thousands of eons. The restrictions on access lead Herzog to face some creative challenges. He meets these, as always, with reverence, fanciful pessimism, and wordless drollery (such as the seemingly impossible opening shot, ultimately revealed as the work of a toy). The cave art itself is perplexingly beautiful, sealed in with centuries of sparkling minerals. These strikingly expressive images of long-vanished animals have the timelessness of Aborigine cave paintings in Australia, and yet they must be considered completely outside of art history. They’ve had no influence, and in turn are pure relics of a Paleolithic culture: images left behind by proto-humans at the dawn of consciousness. (Apr 25 at 7 and Apr 26 at 9:30 at the Kabuki)
Performance artist Miranda July is an undeniably erotic figure: her mixture of candor and modesty has the allure one sees in some of the great silent film stars. Too bad this movie, with its troubling narcissism and bouts of undeniable tweeness, isn’t as startling as her 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s narrated by Paw Paw the cat, waiting in the animal shelter to be rescued by Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). These live-in lovers worry about even the kind of commitment a cat requires. (Paw Paw is ill, and requires constant medication.) Some time and space dislocation cause Sophie to end in the arms of a middle-aged stranger deep in the suburbs. Moments are surprising: a dialogue about a gold chain on a lover’s throat, Sophie’s dance with a pup-tent sized t-shirt. Ultimately one wonders if the metaphysical stoppage of time, the questions of settling down, or even the transcendental cat herself, are more cleanly elemental symbols of the urge to settle down than the dancing baby on Ally McBeal. (April 23 at 6:15, Kabuki; April 24 9:15 at the New People, 1746 Post Street.)
Unpreviewed, but there’s usually something bracing about the proudly reprobate and deliberately visually static cinema of Hong Sang-soo (Like You Know It All). His embrace of sneakiness is a fresh breeze in a Korean cinema filled with sincerity. The premise: two angles on the story of a beach-side vacation, and clues to the way it really might have turned out. (Apr 22 at 6:15, Apr 25 at 9 and Apr 26 at 3:30 at the Kabuki.)
Unpreviewed. This is every Republican’s favorite urban legend—some loafer spilled coffee on themselves, making ten million easy bucks and causing Ronald McDonald to weep in sadness…conclusive evidence of the tort reform we need so badly in America. About damned time someone presented the facts of Liebeck vs. McDonalds, and documentary maker Susan Saladoff has apparently done it. Scalded with third degree burns on her genitals, which required skin grafts and two years of treatment, a 79 year old woman named Stella Liebeck (above) settled for far less than the big figure everyone knows about. And there’s more…(Apr 22 at 6:30 at New People, Apr 25 at 6:30 and Apr 26 at 2 at the Kabuki.)
Canada’s Oscar bid last year. It deals with the death of an emotionally shuttered mother, and the horrors she lived through in Lebanon during the civil war, through terrorism and an unplanned pregnancy. The mother’s last will sends her daughter and son (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) to the old country to hunt long-lost relations. Interesting episodes, but dreadful in total: strictly for fans of shocking coincidence in the archaic, melodramatic mold of Madame X. (May 2 at 6:30 and May 5 at 8 at the Kabuki).
*Life, Above All
Somewhat better than the title suggests. It concerns the impact of AIDS—a disease no one here even wants to name—on a poor South African family of today: a smart, hard-fighting little girl (Khomotso Menyaka) tries to keep this family together, even as local prejudice tries to break it up. It’s on the verge of young adult lit, and it’s easy to predict where Life, Above All is headed (you’ve seen public service commercials that were less messagey). Yet it has definite local flavor. And as the formidable, bible-thumping next door neighbor, the larger than life Harriet Lenabe brings in most of the film’s comedy as well as much of it’s subtlety. (Apr 23 at 4pm and Apr 28 at 6pm at the Kabuki.)
Intelligent, gripping but ultimately frustrating neo-western by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy). For every Jim Bridger or Kit Carson, there must have been a dozen fools like Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a braggart of a trail guide who has accidentally (on purpose?) lead some 1840s pioneers into the underbrush. He terrifies them with tales of the bloodthirsty redskins as the water runs out. Heavy stars in the cast: Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan are the trio of pioneer women, posed like the three graces by the Portland-based director. Like the short cut these unfortunates take, Meek’s Cutoff’s ending is a risk that doesn’t quite pay off. (Perhaps I’m missing the point, and it’s all a metaphor about George W. Bush?) (Apr 22 at 9 and Apr 25 at 4:30 at the Kabuki.)