Taste Test

Week 2 of the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival

Abel Raises Cain

(U.S., 2004)

In her diverting debut documentary, Jenny Abel (with Jeff Hockett) sets out to rescue her father's reputation and, beyond that, justify his life. Alan Abel is a creative writer and persuasive actor who's spent most of the last 50 years hoaxing the New York media. His great successes -- measured in column inches, airtime, and indignant citizens -- were the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), a '50s campaign to clothe horses and pets, and Omar's School for Beggars (coinciding with NYC's '70s financial travails). The ease with which Abel fooled TV producers and newspaper editors exposed the modern appetite for pseudo-news, but his goal -- to make the public more skeptical of the media -- is benignly apolitical. Abel's not a satirist but a prankster who, sadly, comes across as immature rather than subversive. Consequently, Jenny Abel's tentativeness in probing the cost of her dad's inability to conform robs the film of much-needed emotional complexity. (Michael Fox)
Saturday, April 30, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 5:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Abel Raises Cain
Abel Raises Cain
Following Sean
Following Sean
The Hero
The Hero
Izo
Izo
Life in a Box
Life in a Box
Murderball
Murderball
Phil the Alien
Phil the Alien
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
Yes
Yes

Details

Through May 5

(925) 866-9559

www.sffs.org

Screenings take place at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theater (1881 Post at Fillmore); the Castro Theatre (429 Castro near Market); the Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft at Bowditch, UC Berkeley campus); and the Aquarius Theatre (430 Emerson at University, Palo Alto)

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Following Sean

(U.S., 2004)

Thirty-five years ago, when freak flags flew and utopia seemed attainable, Ralph Arlyck touched down in the Haight long enough to make an award-winning student film about the 4-year-old who lived upstairs. His years-in-the-making sequel -- a "Where are they now?" sliver of the counterculture -- is ineffably haunting. Avoiding the simplistic clichés of idealism and disillusionment, Arlyck conveys the various ways in which children select and reject the values and lifestyles of their parents. We glean how the buttoned-down '50s exploded into the tie-dyed '60s, and how the freedom of the early '70s congealed into the reduced expectations of the '90s. Arlyck's wall-to-wall narration brims with introspection and tenderness, though he overreaches near the end for meanings that prove evasive. Steeped in yearning and awash in gorgeous vintage black-and-white footage, the ephemeral Following Sean nonetheless deserves a spot in the canon of Bay Area histories that includes Berkeley in the Sixties and The Times of Harvey Milk. (Michael Fox)
Sunday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Hero

(Angola/Portugal/France, 2004)

It's a minor miracle of sorts that Zézé Gamboa's earnest melodrama, set in the Angolan capital of Luanda, is as compelling as it is. Burdened with pallid expository dialogue, one-dimensional characters, and familiar themes, it also boasts a central protagonist of rare dignity and rooting interest. An army veteran who lost a leg (and received a medal) when he stepped on a mine, Vitorio has a dignity that propels the movie, even when he's drunk or cruel. In search of a prosthesis and a job, Vitorio crosses paths with a war orphan, a prostitute, and a teacher. Gamboa studiously avoids the temptation to sugarcoat Angola's postwar unemployment, poverty, and corruption by matching every small gain by Vitorio or the others with a setback. But he also recognizes that the difficulty of surviving alone drives people to form families. (Michael Fox)
Saturday, April 30, 1 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, May 2, 8:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Izo

(Japan, 2004)

There was a time when Miike Takashi's ultraviolent set pieces were creative and exciting. But in this, his first samurai film, there's sadly no rhythm or modulation to the endless sword duels inflicted upon us by Okada Izo, ronin assassin in the service of one of many bosses fighting for a place in the declining feudalism of Japan's Tokugawa era. An actual historical character, Izo begins this version of his life crucified, as his executioners spear him repeatedly. But the poor bastard can't die -- he's doomed to demonhood, traveling through space and time, slashing and bisecting anybody who gets in his way. This includes yakuza, young women, his mother, a secluded cabal of powerful men, children, soldiers of the Imperial Army, and Bob Sapp the would-be demon-queller. Even fans of midnight-movie extremes will tire of this extremely muddled allegory on the endless Buddhist hell of violence and the futility of retribution -- if that's what it's supposed to be. (Frako Loden)
Saturday, April 30, midnight, AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 12:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Life in a Box

(U.S., 2005)

Two country-western musicians eke out a career traveling across America in a trailer, their extroverted frontman sporting a dress. Their relationship, however, slowly and painfully implodes after they invite a third man into their itinerant lifestyle. After a peppy opening, most of the film details this collapse, which is too bad, as the two-man band Y'all evidently provided an entertaining show. But after 10 years, the men are bored with their act, and consequently they show too little of it in Life in a Box, which largely consists instead of hand-held video footage shot by all three men, passing a camera back and forth, as they discuss the nuances of their relationship. For a decade, we learn, the members of Y'all believed stardom was imminent -- delusional thinking compounded by this movie, which assumes we'll be interested in the squabbles that ended their career. Direction is credited to one of the trio, Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, who seems to have gotten the tapes in the settlement. Memo to Steven: Your lyrics are excellent, but your music all sounds the same. Get a new sidekick and put the videotapes in storage. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 30, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 8 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Murderball

(U.S., 2004)

Don't call quad rugby by its old nickname, the title of this movie -- but know that the term vividly describes what these bad motherfuckers do in their armored Mad Max wheelchairs. Mike Zupan, a star athlete who lost the use of his legs in a high school truck accident, leads Team U.S.A. Joe Soares, a granite-jawed tough guy used to fighting schoolmates who taunted him for his childhood polio, has been cut from the team, and despite jeers of "Benedict Arnold," crosses the border to coach the Canadian crew, with the sole aim of kicking his former (undefeated) team's ass at the Athens Paralympics. There's plenty of psychodrama in these profiles of men who have traded legs for wheels but who haven't given up their physical prowess and killer competitive instincts. The "ass-level" wheelchair camera vantage point is terrific for depicting furious clashes and stopwatch suspense, and the emotional impact of losing mobility in one's youth is never milked for pity -- rather, you wonder if these guys would be half as interesting if they could walk the earth. (Frako Loden)
Thursday, April 28, 7:30 p.m., Kanbar Hall (S.F. Jewish Community Center, 3200 California at Presidio); Friday, April 29, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Phil the Alien

(Canada, 2004)

The deadpan sensibility favored by Canadian comedies is typically too chilly and bloodless for mainstream American audiences, who prefer pratfalls to pinched faces. But in this hoot destined for cult fandom, writer/director/star Rob Stefaniuk marries the intelligent absurdity of SCTV with plenty of pulp shenanigans. Abetted by a slew of swell comic turns and a stellar sound design that drives home every punch and shot, Stefaniuk puts over his nonsensical but oddly touching tale of a hapless alien who discovers whiskey and Jesus while being pursued by equally hapless U.S. agents. A good-natured sendup of (among other things) Canucks' affinity for alcohol, Phil would nonetheless benefit from viewers partaking of a drink or two before the lights go down. (Michael Fox)
Friday, April 29, midnight, AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 2, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

(U.S./Mexico, 2005)

Local filmmaker Taggart Siegel befriended Illinois farmer John Peterson 25 years ago, and in some ways he's been making this engaging but uneven doc ever since. Peterson winningly tells his own story of growing up on the family farm, taking it on after his father's premature death and tilting it briefly toward communalism with the big-city friends he made at a nearby college in the '60s. A candid portrait of self-reliance and guilt -- Peterson, like thousands of small farmers, gets whipsawed by low prices and high interest rates in the late '70s and the family legacy is shattered -- character and reinvention, Dirt astutely avoids cheerleading and sentimentality. That is, until the home stretch, when the drama evaporates, the pacing falters, and the film flattens out. (Michael Fox)
Monday, May 2, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Yes

(England, 2004)

Sally Potter (Orlando) directs an incandescent Joan Allen, this year's Peter J. Owens Award winner, in a globe-hopping romance between an Irish-American molecular biologist (Allen) and a Lebanese surgeon turned sous-chef (stage actor Simon Abkarian), whose humoring of her during her husband's (Sam Neill) dull dinner party blossoms into an adulterous liaison. The lovers become each other's "secret country," stealing embraces in hotel rooms and orgasms under cafe tables, until their relationship disintegrates in a moment of cultural misunderstanding. Potentially off-putting devices -- such as the maid's direct-camera-address, one-woman Greek chorus on germs and heartbreak, and the delivery of most of the dialogue in rhyming couplets -- instead enhance this lovely yet unsparing examination of two people from very different backgrounds shedding the dead skins of their past in a wary post-9/11 world. The woman's visit to her aunt's (Sheila Hancock) deathbed is a transcendent moment, recapturing the tearful joy of Molly Bloom's "yes" soliloquy and evoking a female Ulysses. (Frako Loden)
Friday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., Castro

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