S.F. International Film Fest preview

It's that time of year again, when San Franciscans are treated to an embarrassment of cinematic riches. Between April 22 and May 6, the S.F. International Film Festival will screen 177 films from 46 countries. We obviously couldn't preview all of the movies, but we did get to see enough to help you plan your viewing schedule for the fest.

For a complete listing of films and special events, visit the festival's Web site at http://fest10.sffs.org.

Around a Small Mountain
(Jacques Rivette, France)
In his 52nd year of filmmaking, 82-year-old Jacques Rivette revisits a lifelong passion for rituals and re-enactments in this character study of a woman confronting her past. Exiled from her family's circus for decades over a fluke accident, middle-aged Kate (alert, wary Jane Birkin) has just returned to her ever-traveling "home." An Italian traveler, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), happens by and decides to stay awhile, determined to solve Kate's mystery. Offering advice to clowns whose act draws no response, Vittorio soon joins the circus himself. For long stretches, "nothing happens," and then you realize life has. Gregg Rickman
Friday, April 23, 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 24, 4:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Father of My Children
(Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
This peripatetic portrait of an overextended art-film producer and his charming young family is impeccably made but terminally frustrating. A wonderfully naturalistic Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, as Grégoire, is the film's hard-driving motor, juggling two dozen balls at once and gradually and inevitably losing control. After he leaves the picture, his wife and stepdaughter try in digressive ways to carry on his legacy, but neither is compelling enough to carry the movie. The events surrounding the suicide of producer Humbert Balsan (Lars von Trier's Manderlay, Béla Tarr's The Man from London, among others) provided the catalyst for the film, yet it's mighty difficult to fathom exactly what aspect of the whole awful business touched Mia Hansen-Løve. The young French director is resolutely nonjudgmental and unsentimental — about both her characters and the art of moviemaking — to the point that we feel neither Grégoire's tragedy nor inspiration. The moral of the story, such as it is, is that life goes on with or without those who give everything to create art. Michael Fox
Monday, April 26, 8:15 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Wednesday, April 28, 6 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Friday, April 30, 6:30 p.m., at the Clay.

Littlerock
(Mike Ott, USA)
Alternately tender and foreboding, this engaging Amerindie vignette centers on a young Japanese tourist (Atsuko Okatsuka) temporarily stranded with her brother in an out-of-the-way, no-hope California town on their way to San Francisco and Manzanar (the site of a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II). Seizing her first taste of autonomy and freedom, she falls in with a circle of ordinary, going-nowhere layabouts. She doesn't speak even a word of English and, improbably, displays precisely the same command of the language when the film ends. As a result, she never comes completely into focus, and we're forced to imagine and invent whatever life lessons she has garnered from her adventure. Writer-director Mike Ott displays a terrific feel for tone, mystery, and ambiguity, although he pushes his loose, vague scenario past the point of credibility. (For example, characters remain baffled by the language barrier all the way to the final shot.) The film has little new to say about small-town America but, more disappointing, it doesn't enable us to see our country through a visitor's eyes. M.F.
Friday, April 23, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Saturday, April 24, 9 p.m., Monday, April 26, 3:45 p.m., and Saturday, May 1, 3:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Marwencol
(Jeff Malmberg, USA)
Mark Hogancamp was beaten into a coma a decade ago by some guys he met (okay, provoked) in a bar. Recovering from brain injuries and with an abundance of solitary time, he began constructing and populating a Barbie-doll–sized, World War II–themed Belgian town behind his trailer 100 miles outside New York City. In effect, Hogancamp devised his own therapy, escapist fantasy (or alternate reality, if you prefer), and art form (via the photographs he obsessively takes of Marwencol, as he dubbed his village). A low-key second cousin to the damaged-artist documentaries Crumb and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, this endlessly engaging and resolutely nonsensational character study mimics the way we're introduced to strangers and get to know them — the big headlines first, then the gradual revelation of underlying history and core identity. Jeff Malmberg, an editor, writer, and producer directing his first doc, astutely parcels out information and insights all the way to the end, trusting his audience to embrace portraiture in lieu of artificially enhanced drama. M.F.
Saturday, May 1, 4:10 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, May 2, 6:45 p.m., and Tuesday, May 4, 4:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

My Dog Tulip
(Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, U.K.)
This animated film is based on a memoir by J.R. Ackerley, an English journalist shown here ducking out of a press conference with Churchill, Hemingway, and Shaw in order to get home to his beloved "Alsatian bitch." Tulip is a growly, barky dog; viewers steeped in today's dog-whispering culture will be shocked at Tulip's unchecked aggression, toileting habits, and Ackerley's complete lack of interest in spaying her. Indeed, much of the film is built around his efforts to mate Tulip with one inadequate male or another, simply so that she can enjoy some sex. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's film is as unpacified as Tulip herself, computer animated to suggest scratchy ink drawings over washes of color. G.R.
Saturday, April 24, 2 p.m., Sunday, April 25, 6 p.m., and Tuesday, April 27, 4:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Saturday, May 1, 8:50 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

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