* Indicates films recommended by our reviewers.
The Age of Possibilities
* Unsettled young Americans may find consolation in Pascale Ferran's amusing study of their French counterparts facing the agonies of fleeting love and underemployment, the uncertainty of the future, and reliable old ennui. An apartmentful of Strasbourg partygoers singing and dancing along to the Blues Brothers is way more fun than whatever it was Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder did in Reality Bites. Some of the translations seem funky and confusion occasionally results as the characters work through one degree of small-town separation, but a fresh cast, and the director's ear for dialogue and eye for detail, makes this an entertaining enterprise. (Wisner)
Plays Thursday, May 1, at 1:15 p.m., and Friday, May 2, at 10 p.m. (Also at the Lark Sunday, May 4, at 9 p.m.)
Brigands, Chapter VII
* For its first half-hour this new film by ex-Soviet Georgian Otar Iosseliani shifts back and forth at will from a casually barbaric modern civil war and a cruelly comic medieval landscape vaguely suggestive of Monty Python. An hour's increasingly nightmarish and unfunny plunge into the revolutionary Georgia of Lenin and then Stalin forms the film's core, with a return to the post-communist chaos of the modern world serving as a dying-away coda. Guns, paranoia, torture, liquor, and foodstuffs are the director's motifs as his large, dead-eyed cast plays different roles in each era. Once a maker of lyrical hymns to nature, time and exile have made this Parisian-based filmmaker a no less lyrical exposer of human cruelty. Few words are spoken as Iosseliani's camera pans and zooms through the carnage in a world where every outrage is ironic and even irony's an outrage. (Rickman)
Plays Wednesday, May 7, at 6:45 p.m., and Thursday, May 8, at 1:30 p.m. (Also at the PFA Saturday, May 3, at 3:30 p.m.)
Colors Straight Up
* A gem of a documentary, with all the elements of great drama falling naturally into place. Director Michael Ohoyon profiles a year in the life of Colors United, an after-school drama program aimed at drawing besieged Watts youth away from drugs, violence, and crime. Harrowing footage of funeral services and court dates, racial tension and rocky family life spills over into sometimes raucous, sometimes heart-rending rehearsal footage and interviews with these sulky, articulate, determined kids. ("I wouldn't make a good gangbanger," says one. "It's not me. I'd get into a fight and be like, 'Don't mess up the hair.' ") (Wisner)
Plays Monday, May 5, at 7:15 p.m., and Tuesday, May 6, at 1 p.m.
Comrades, Almost a Love Story
(Hong Kong, 1996)
* This film made a well-deserved sweep of the Hong Kong Film Awards a couple of weeks ago. It's a splendid old-fashioned, three-hankie, street-level boy-meets-girl romance, the kind Hong Kong seems to do particularly well. Maggie Cheung is radiant as an ambitious mainlander determined to get rich in Hong Kong, and Chinese-pop star Leon Lai is wonderful as the hick who falls in love with her. The film unfortunately slathers on its music score a bit too thick. Aside from that and a too-neat denouement, Comrades is a true delight. (Booth)
Plays Monday, May 5, at 7 p.m.
Conspirators of Pleasure
(Czech Republic/Switzerland/U.K., 1996)
In Conspirators of Pleasure the fest's Persistence of Vision Award-winner, Jan Svankmajer, weaves together the story of six fanatical, sexually obsessed people into an LSD-like inspired orgy of concepts and images. In fact, in this film life is sexual obsession, but it's not the spread-your-legs sort -- rather, it's creative, bloody, feathery, puncturable, furry, and wet. I wish more filmmakers could or would dare to create like Svankmajer, but there's a problem -- this is one sloooooow movie. Where was the editor? (Stachura)
Plays Tuesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. (Also at the PFA Saturday, May 3, at 9:15 p.m.)
* Fest honoree Andre de Toth's harsh, sardonic worldview is nowhere better expressed than in this short, sharp noir from 1954. (See Michael Sragow's interview with de Toth, Page 73.) Ex-con Gene Nelson lives in a world of endless suspicion where you're only as good as your word -- which no one believes. When some prison escapees botch a holdup in his neighborhood, both they and toothpick-sucking cop Sterling Hayden force Nelson's involvement in the resulting game of cross and double-cross across a nocturnal L.A. of all-night gas stations, diners, and police stations. Bert Glennon photographs these outposts of Purgatory in various hues of gray while the classic noir cast, including a young, notch-faced Charles Bronson, rises to de Toth's vivid direction. Hayden, the Nick Nolte of '50s B's (at once flabby and sharp, brutal and funny), incarnates every fear about Los Angeles policemen you've ever had and maybe a few you hadn't thought of. (Rickman)
Plays Thursday, May 1, at 7 p.m., and Monday, May 5, at 4:30 p.m.
(Mexico/France/ Spain, 1996)
Based on Leonard Kastle's campy 1970 film The Honeymoon Killers, which is itself inspired by a real-life murder case, Deep Crimson is both a fascinating and decidedly unpleasant experience. Like all of Mexican director Arturo Ripstein's work, it's beautifully crafted, handsomely photographed, and impressively acted. Unlike Kastle's original, Ripstein has removed most of the camp element and instead goes for a melancholy character study of two sad losers and their victims. Every character is so desperate for affection and love that it kills almost all of them. As morbidly seductive as Ripstein makes it, the result is, well, pretty damned depressing. (Booth)
Plays Friday, May 2, at 3:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 4, at 9:45 p.m.
* Ira Sachs' impressionistic first feature, shot in Memphis with a talented amateur cast, sketches the brief, troubled relationship between wealthy white boy Lincoln (Shayne Gray) and working-class mixed-race John (Thang Chan). Lincoln has a girlfriend but secretly cruises for gay sex. In a shrewd inversion of Huckleberry Finn, the two steal Lincoln's family boat for a leisurely river cruise. But this is no voyage of self-discovery; because Lincoln's repressions -- born of his class, as a strained family dinner makes clear -- render him incapable of self-analysis. John's attraction to Lincoln is erotically charged, almost groveling, and their interplay recalls master-slave relationships in the Old South. Sachs extrapolates a world of class and race inequities from this failed love affair between two men. (Morris)
Plays Thursday, May 1, at 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, May 3, at 9:30 p.m. (Also at the PFA Monday, May 5, at 7 p.m.)
A Drifting Life
* This is a first feature? This semi-autobiographical, uncannily confident debut captures the rootless rhythm of a young widower (Lee Kang-sheng, who also stars in another superb festival entry from Taiwan, The River) as he drifts between a city life with his city lover and his parent's farm in the country, where his two children live. Deeply moving and extraordinarily beautiful, it's very much in the meditative, elemental tradition of fellow Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, and every bit as good. (Booth)
Plays Friday, May 2, at 1:30 p.m., and Saturday, May 3, at 6:45 p.m.
Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
The great revolutionary thinker of the 1950s (he died in 1961) is a ghostly presence in this composite look at his life, never quite emerging from icon status to flesh and blood. The facts are all here, and some of them -- like Fanon's galvanizing experiences working at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria -- are powerfully sketched through interviews with colleagues and friends, and historical footage. But using an actor (a not very good one at that) to re-create key moments in Fanon's life seems particularly inappropriate for a man driven by the idea of living "authentically." (Morris)
Plays Tuesday, May 6, at 2 and 7:15 p.m. (Also at the PFA Wednesday, May 7, at 9 p.m.)
* Hong Kong megastar Maggie Cheung is hired by Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a has-been French director, for a remake of the silent serial Irma Vep. This ill-fated film-within-a-film gives director Oliver Assayas a dazzling platform for an attack on the pomposities of the French film industry, but Irma Vep is more than a polemic. Assayas' nervous, constantly moving camera gives his characters a bracing immediacy as they gossip and fight over everything from action films vs. "dead French cinema" to whether lesbian wardrobe mistress Zoe (Nathalie Richard) has managed to bed the star. The entrancing Cheung suggests another dimension to the film as a virtually abandoned outsider, and her relationship with Zoe resonates particularly in a scene where Zoe longingly tries to convince her to come to a "bonne rave." (Morris)
Plays Saturday, May 3, at 10 p.m.
Jour de Fete
* Jacques Tati plays pastoral hide-and-seek in his 1947 feature debut, restored to its original pastels in a characteristically idiosyncratic comedy about a rural postman-on-wheels who tries to modernize his deliveries "the American way" after catching a movie on same. The comedy is broader and his character more talkative than in Tati's later Hulot films, an awful toothbrush mustache making the gawky star look like an elongated Wimpy. The provincial charm is laid on with a trowel. Nonetheless some inspired and/or agreeably stylized comic routines and running gags point the way toward the formalist mastery of Tati's later work. (If there's a funnier film playing in this festival, we'd like to hear about it.) (Rickman)
Plays Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m.
* Aimless teen Jonathan Rhys Myers' pretty vacant life upends when slickly criminal big bro Matthew Modine returns after a long absence. Director Tim Hunter himself fruitfully returns to the grunge-kids-in-a-moral-bind narrative he has long since made his own (Tex, River's Edge). An ethical gangster flick, The Maker displays an unforced stylistic virtuosity and intelligence of a caliber rapidly vanishing from American budget cinema. The brooding Rhys Myers and the joking Modine are an excellent unmatched sibling set, and Fairuza Balk is particularly tasty as Rhys Myers' lesbian gal pal. (Rickman)
Plays Friday, May 2, at 10:30 p.m., and Monday, May 5, at 3:45 p.m. (Also at the Lark Saturday, May 3, at 9:30 p.m.)
The title defines this documentary's limits -- it's a dignified portrait of the South African leader, not a political explication or a psychological probe -- and the directors, Jo Menell and Angus Gibson, fill those limits handsomely. What's most intriguing about this movie's straight-ahead, heroic rendering of Mandela's life story are its fleeting depictions of his sarcasm and caginess. Since this production derives from Jonathan Demme's company (Clinica Estetico), it's not surprising that the music on the soundtrack accentuates the film's attention to the spoken and stomped rhythms of a folk revolution. (Sragow)
Plays Saturday, May 3, at 7 p.m., and Wednesday, May 7, at 1 p.m.
(Czech Republic, 1968)
* A stunning indictment of the orphanages and penal institutions of communist Czechoslovakia. The government dealt with the "problem of the Gypsies" by taking Romany children from their parents, officially to give them running water and an education. But in reality years of abuse and neglect produce enraged and alienated adults who cannot function in the world they've supposedly been specially prepared for. (Stachura)
Plays Friday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m., and Monday, May 5, at 1:15 p.m.
* Martin Scorsese's Little Italy Graffiti, written in hot blood, stars Harvey Keitel as the would-be street saint Charlie -- a mob kid on the rise -- and Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, his out-of-control friend. Twenty-three years ago, its view of a claustrophobic, unjust ethnic life startled those who misread The Godfather as a paean to the traditional Italian family. And the conflict raging in the hero's skull, between his religious sensibility and pursuit of success, mirrored all the confusion and compromise of the Vietnam-Watergate era. Scorsese's talent exploded in jolting camera moves and a febrile rock soundtrack. The result was a breakthrough depiction of urban life in extremis. Selected by writer Barry Gifford for the fest's "Indelible Images" series. (Sragow)
Plays Wednesday, May 7, at 9:15 p.m.
A Midwife's Tale
* One tireless woman fleshes out the life of another in this vivid re-enactment of the world of 18th-century American midwife Martha Ballard, as described in her diary, which (in a parallel, documentary-esque fashion) historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich transcribes into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Ulrich did exhaustive research to augment the diaries; because so few women of that era left records of their lives behind, she turned to town-meeting notes, wills, and other public documents. (She had Ballard's husband's diary, too, to help translate her findings and put them in context.) This is a rare and engaging portrait of a remarkable life, giving viewers a sense of the hard work and social standards governing that time. (Wisner)
Plays Sunday, May 4, at 5:30 p.m., and Tuesday, May 6, at 4 p.m. (Also at the Lark Friday, May 2, at 7 p.m.)
Never Again, Forever
* A truly scary documentary by Pierre Chainet and Danae Elon. It traces the Jewish Defense League from its rise in Brooklyn in the late 1960s to its present incarnation in Israel, where it's been outlawed as a terrorist group. Former and present members discuss the murder of Arabs and other "enemies" as both necessity and pleasure. In one scene, a 12-year-old boy says, "I want to join the Israel army and kill Arabs in cold blood," while his mother watches and smiles. The JDL's religious imprimatur, racist dogma, and vigilante mentality give the film an eerie, timely ring. (Morris)
Plays Sunday, May 4, at noon, and Wednesday, May 7, at 3:30 p.m.
Nobody's Business/The Miniskirted Dynamo
(U.S.A., 1996 / Australia, 1996)
* Jewish parents go on trial in this standout program, which pairs the Golden Gate Award winners in the first-person documentary category. In Nobody's Business, New Yorker Alan Berliner forces his hilariously irascible and stubbornly defiant father to look back and confront his "ordinary" life of triumphs and failures, while Australian Rivka Hartman comes to terms with her powerful, overachieving mother (The Miniskirted Dynamo) whose innovations in child welfare contrasted with her curious lack of compassion at home. Irony, insight, and wit are the filmmakers' weapons of choice, which keeps these fascinating films far removed from the realm of sour get-even pieces or treacly tributes. (Fox)
Plays Sunday, May 4, at 2:30 p.m., and Monday, May 5, at 4 p.m. (Also at the PFA Tuesday, May 6, at 9 p.m.)
None Shall Escape
* This film, made nine years before Andre de Toth's best-known movie, the 3-D House of Wax (1953), shows the depth of his talents. Shot at the height of the war by the great Lee Garmes, this crackling black-and-white drama was both topical and prescient -- grimly detailing the terrors the Nazis were busy inflicting on Poland, and predicting the Nuremberg trials. The scene in which a desperate rabbi incites a trainful of Jews headed for the camps to riot is one of the most harrowing in cinema. (Morris)
Plays Saturday, May 3, at 4:15 p.m.
(Slovakia/France/ Switzerland, 1995)
* One listens in horrified fascination as Czechoslovak victims of Stalinist oppression tell of their persecution and torture. People here and across Central and Eastern Europe lost families, land, homes, jobs, and limbs as any hint of rebellion was quashed with fear. Dusan Hanak combines archival footage, intense interviews, and superb papier-mache masked street theater to great effect. At times the rhythm of the film becomes repetitive, but testimonials of human torture snap you back. Intense and chilling. (Stachura)
Plays Sunday, May 4, at 12:15 p.m., and Wednesday, May 7, at 1:15 p.m. (Also at the PFA Monday, May 5, at 9:15 p.m.)
The Pillow Book
* Peter Greenaway amends and extends his experiments in sex, violence, and list-making in this fascinating film, a reworking of a 1,000-year-old Japanese classic largely set in Hong Kong, 1996-1999. Vivian Wu plays a woman, Nagiko, literally marked from childhood by her calligrapher father, who paints her face with words every birthday until his brutal publisher displaces him. As an adult Nagiko becomes obsessed with the art of calligraphy on the body -- hers and others. Greenaway's attempts to reinvent cinema with insert screens of words and images recall the split-screen experiments of the 1970s and of course his own fascination with grids, words, and texts generally (as in The Draughtsman's Contract or Prospero's Books), while his usually icy eroticism thaws quite a bit in the warmblooded performances of Wu and Ewan McGregor as a lover. And of course there's the usual Grand Guignol theatrical coup to drop the jaw of the most jaded semiotician. (Rickman)
Plays Sunday, May 4, at 4 p.m.
Six o'Clock News
* Veteran Ross McElwee watchers are really interested in only one thing, so I'll get it out of the way right up front -- yes, Charlene's back! McElwee (Sherman's March) is now married and has a son; his new documentary is an enthralling inquiry into the horror he witnesses on the nightly news and the mixed feelings he has bringing a son into this crazy mess of a world. But, as usual, that's just the beginning, and you've gotta see it to believe all the stuff he packs into this glorious film. Absolutely essential viewing. (Booth)
Plays Tuesday, May 6, at 9:30 p.m.
Storm the Skies
A domineering communist mother dupes her son into becoming a killing machine for the cause -- no, this isn't The Manchurian Candidate, though it's just as riveting. This 1996 documentary by Javier Rioyo and J.L. Lopez-Linares is an evocative record of the complex historical forces and family dynamics that led the mysterious Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist mama's boy, to drive an ice pick into the head of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. (Morris)
Plays Thursday, May 1, at 4 p.m., Sunday, May 4, at 11 p.m., and Wednesday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m.
A Summer in La Goulette
* A terrifically satisfying coming-of-age story from film critic-turned-director Ferid Boughedir (Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces) with much more on its mind than lustful innocence. Set in a Tunisian seaside resort on the eve of the Six-Day War, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews could still live together amicably, La Goulette is sunny and compassionate, but hardly a nostalgic paean to a long-lost, perfect world. For one thing, a jaundiced view of the male patriarchy informs every scene. And despite all the backslapping and surface bonding, the film's sober conclusion is that, when the chips are really down, religious and cultural differences will reassert themselves. The screening will include the presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award to former S.F. Chronicle movie critic Judy Stone. (Fox)
Plays Thursday, May 1, at 9:15 p.m., and Friday, May 2, at 1 p.m. (Also at the Lark Sunday, May 4, at 4:30 p.m.)
* This Diane-Arbus-photo-with-sound sends up that peculiarly American ode to 1950s conformity and pod mentality, Levittown. Writer/director John O'Hagan lets archival footage and interviews with present-day denizens and escapees like Bill Griffith (of Zippy fame) paint an amusingly weird picture of the first suburb. Along the way we meet a couple obsessed with wood, an alcoholic parakeet, a haunted tract house, and more deviant thrills from the early days, wife-swapping parties, "cross-marriage," and drunken binges among them. Scariest moment: an old man's tearful prayer that "all the original Levittowners will be together in heaven." (Morris)
Plays Monday, May 5, at 9:30 p.m., and Wednesday, May 7, at 4:30 p.m. (Also at the Lark Sunday, May 4, at 2 p.m.)
* The Beatles help Pepperland withstand the Blue Meanies while their animators concoct a psychedelic history of art in which Magritte and Dali coexist with Peter Max. Today it's hard to know what's more refreshing: the ticklish combination of bravura collage effects and literate yet off-the-cuff comedy (like Terry Gilliam's cartoon interludes for Monty Python), or the zing that great pop music can bring to a full-length animated feature. Selected by filmmaker John Lasseter (Toy Story) for the fest's "Indelible Images" series. (Sragow)
Plays Wednesday, May 7, at 7 p.m.
* Films screened by the festival or made available for viewing on tape were reviewed by our staff; commentary by Tod Booth, Michael Fox, Gary Morris, Gregg Rickman, Michael Sragow, Renata Stachura, and Heather Wisner.
* Call the fest at 441-7373 to check for updates and changes.
All screenings are at the Kabuki, 1881 Post (at Fillmore), unless otherwise noted. There are also screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley; and the Lark, 549 Magnolia (at Dougherty) in Larkspur.
* Tickets are $8 ($6 for Film Institute members, seniors, and students) unless otherwise noted. Weekday screenings until 5 p.m. are $4-5. Tickets are available at the door to each film, but it's smart to buy in advance, at the main box office in the Japan Center next-door to the Kabuki or downtown at the Macy's furniture store, 835 Market (at Powell) in the old Emporium building.
* You can charge by phone at 441-7373 noon to 7 p.m. daily.
* The festival has a schedule and more on the Web, at www.sfiff.org.
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