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The 41st San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
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A few decades ago, a controversial Bay Area critic named Pauline Kael -- yes, the same wild original who went on to become Pauline Kael -- wrote an excoriating review of the San Francisco International Film Festival for a now-defunct publication called For Film. Years before she was to win the Mel Novikoff Award, she wrote about the craziness of seeing supposedly great (or at least special) movies night after night, in the forced euphoria of an atmosphere in which anyone involved in movies is treated as a genius by association.

The 41st edition is upon us, and moviegoers swept up in the inevitable hometown boosterism can get ready for another erratic cinematic smorgasbord served up by chefs and waiters of wildly different temperaments and accents. The difference is that, over the last 20 years, the scope of the festival has enlarged so that attending it has become the equivalent of spending a couple of weeks in the United Nations -- and visiting every nearby embassy, and attending every special committee.

I use the U.N. analogy advisedly. Having attended an equal number of press and public screenings over the last few years, I can tell you that the intense good feeling of the audience, whether they've come to cheer a friend or applaud the latest work of their ancestral land (be it Germany or Brazil or Burkina Faso), can carry you through hours of artistic drought. Abandon all hopes of consistency, ye who enter here: Dazzling tributes and doubtless one or two "finds" will nestle in with films of purely sociological or political interest. Lucid documentaries will find a temporary home next to rabid avant-garde dreck like the inexplicably programmed Gummo.

The good side of a megafestival like this one is that for two weeks no-budget films can, at least en masse, gather the same kind of big-city media blitz that routinely goes to studio fodder like The Man in the Iron Mask. The retrospective programs are skimpy compared to last year's cornucopia -- with a new biography and biopic due out about James (Frankenstein) Whale, why not organize a Whale retro and show his Man in the Iron Mask? But even (or perhaps especially) with this U.N. schedule, we should never forget that the festival is in many ways a culture-vulture version of a Roman circus. So let us be the first to say: Let the games begin! -- Michael Sragow

Thursday April 23

7:30 p.m. (Castro): Wilde (England, 1998)
This slick, A&E-style chronicle of Oscar Wilde's rise and fall wrongly assumes that his destructive romance with Lord Alfred Douglas and his legal battle with Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, are the most fascinating things about him. Like Wilde, the filmmakers are least creative when they have his lover "Bosie" on the brain: Director Brian Gilbert portrays the entrance of Wilde's bad boy with the same lubricious lighting that Joel Schumacher lavished on George Clooney in Batman & Robin. The freshest, funniest bit comes right at the beginning, when Wilde, on tour in America, fearlessly charms a bunch of shirtless Colorado silver miners with talk of the goldsmith Cellini. Back in not-so-jolly old England, what we get isn't worthy of Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray; it's merely a routine portrait of the artist. Taking off from Richard Ellman's biography (maybe "melting down" is a better phrase for it), screenwriter Julian Mitchell renders Wilde as a gentle titan and gay martyr. Ellman may describe Wilde as "the kindest of men," but this movie goes overboard peddling the barbed wit's niceness. Mitchell makes Wilde's story "The Selfish Giant" a metaphor for Wilde's guilt over his neglect of his children, and even uses the famous line from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" -- "Each man kills the thing he loves" -- over a shot of Wilde at his wife's cemetery. Stephen Fry is engaging but spineless as Wilde, making him at once a perennial enfant terrible and a pitiful gaping target of a victim. It may not be sporting to say so, but Tom Wilkinson actually gives the juiciest performance as that horrifying brute Queensberry. The Marquess was also a poet of sorts: His favorite work began, "When I am dead, cremate me." (Michael Sragow)

7:30 p.m. (PFA): Somersault in a Coffin (Turkey, 1996)
A neo-realist look at a Turkish homeless man from first-time director Dervis Zaim.

9:30 p.m. (PFA): Life According to Muriel (Argentina, 1997)
What works in this Argentinian film by first-time director Eduardo Milewicz is the awkward friendship that builds between an angry young woman lost in the southern mountains with her 9-year-old daughter and the abandoned wife with two kids they fall in with. What doesn't work is a thick vein of sentiment that runs beneath this film's handsome surface. It continually threatens to gum up the cleareyed view of the film's protagonist and narrator, the little girl (Florencia Camiletti). As an awful song about "Daddy coming home" swamps the soundtrack, this proto-feminist film switches gears halfway through from Thelma & Louise to Kramer vs. Kramer, and while never actually bad is no longer very good. Nice scenery though, and nice acting -- by the female cast, anyway. (Gregg Rickman)

Friday April 24

12:30 p.m.: Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, Yes I Remember (Italy, 1997)
A beguiling memoir. The style is discursive, not dramatic, but how better to while away three hours than in the company of the most debonair man in movie history? His remembrances of 50 years of moviemaking are so relaxed and insightful, they make you feel part of a posthumous conversation. Right up to his death in 1996, Mastroianni masterfully combined emotional transparency and wit. The attitude he describes here is one of humane irony -- toward his work and toward himself. Mastroianni merged with his roles but rarely lost the aesthetic distance he needed to shape (and have fun with) his characters. Indeed, he says, in his celebrated collaborations with Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2), the Maestro's improvisation of entire worlds made him feel like a happy spectator. Mastroianni can be acutely perceptive about undervalued directors like Germi, Petri, and Monicelli as well as giants like De Sica and Fellini. He makes you want to run out and see everything, just to sample his range -- from the myopic intellectual in The Organizer to the wide-eyed john watching Sophia Loren strip in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. (Michael Sragow)

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Michael Fox

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Jeff Stark

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Heather Wisner

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Bill Wyman

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Michael Sragow

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Gregg Rickman

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Gary Morris

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Tod Booth

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Sura Wood

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