S.F. International Film Fest preview

  • By Gregg Rickman
  • Wed Apr 21st, 2010 4:00am
  • FilmFilm
Around a Small Mountain

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.

(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.

(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.

The Peddler
(Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, Adriana Yurcovich, Argentina)
A sad-eyed traveling salesman drives into a small Argentine village with a camera and a proposition. For expenses and ticket sales, he'll use an extant comedy-adventure screenplay to shoot a movie starring the locals. It takes no fewer than three documentary filmmakers to keep up with their energetic subject, Daniel Burmeister, as he races around the village, recruiting a cast and staging scenes. The conceit allows us to see filmmaking as the communal enterprise it is, and we're happy to be part of the audience in the improvised theater where Burmeister holds his premiere. It's a charming love letter to both filmmaking and film audiences. G.R.
Monday, April 26, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Saturday, May 1, 12:30 p.m., and Tuesday, May 4, 6:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.


Port of Memory
(Kamal Aljafari, Palestine/United Arab Emirates/Germany/France)
Israeli films about the regional conflict are typically full of tension and drama, while Palestinian filmmakers depict endemic inertia and passive, powerless frustration. This lovely, evocative parable centers on the members of a Jaffa family who have been designated as “squatters” and told to leave their house. It's actually part of a clandestine campaign in which Israeli Jews replace Arabs in a desirable neighborhood. Writer-director Kamal Aljafari, re-enacting his clan's actual experience, assigns the family a role in its incipient tragedy — they entrusted the deed to a lawyer for safekeeping a decade ago, and it's doubtful that he still has it. In the meantime, they wait in limbo, pitched between banal domesticity and the eeriness of impending apocalypse. Port of Memory is reminiscent of the wonderful films of Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance), but with a poignancy supplanting the latter's droll humor. Aljafari also leans more toward a documentary approach, employing occasional long takes of everyday household activity. The overwhelming impression we're left with is of Jaffa as a ghost town on the edge of the Mediterranean. M.F.
Monday, April 26, 7:15 p.m., Tuesday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., and Wednesday, May 5, 2:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

The Portuguese Nun
(Eugène Green, Portugal/France)
Overlaying grandiose (though occasionally tongue-in-cheek) existential ruminations on a bare-bones tale of a benumbed French film actress on location and at loose ends in Lisbon, veteran French writer-director Eugène Green has crafted an unexpectedly satisfying film about the crisis of meaning in the modern world. That is, if you have the patience and the will to penetrate the director's intentionally off-putting approach — stilted dialogue, affectless line readings (à la Robert Bresson), and the absence of a musical score. (The movie does contain a number of impeccable performances of melancholy Portuguese ballads, which are pure pleasure.) Portrayed to detached perfection by Leonor Baldaque, the actress is a pretty, vacant (the comma is unnecessary, frankly) woman who is acutely aware of her emotional deep-freeze. Wandering the streets of an oddly depopulated Lisbon, she meets several equally solitary individuals — a boy, a man, a nun — who give her reasons not merely to live, but to feel. The film contains a couple of dryly humorous moments, but Green (playing the director of the film-within-the-film) appears to be the only one in on the joke. M.F.
Saturday, May 1, 4 p.m., and Monday, May 3, 3:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Wednesday, May 5, 8:50 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Presumed Guilty
(Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith, Mexico)
It's been a source of debate for decades in documentary circles whether the camera's presence alters the subject's behavior. The infuriating revelation of this profoundly charged crusade for justice is that Mexico's corrupt, ensconced cops, prosecutors, and judges have the audacity to behave pretty much exactly the same when filmmakers are recording them. This ultravaluable doc follows the campaign of Berkeley attorneys Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete to free one of the countless innocent young men plucked off the streets, tried, and convicted (of murder, in this case). The heart of the film is a hard-earned retrial that is impossible to watch without a steep rise in blood pressure. (Let's just say the judge is a more loathsome scoundrel than any of the villains in this summer's blockbusters.) Although the defendant, a likable fellow named José Antonio Zuniga, is the focus of our emotional involvement and rooting interest, the question of one person's innocence eventually pales next to the pervasive immorality of Mexico's entire justice system. M.F.
Sunday, May 2, 3:30 p.m., and Thursday, May 6, 3:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Monday, May 3, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Transcending Lynch
(Marcos Andrade, Brazil)
Unlike a Buñuel, Dalí, or Breton, gosh-golly American surrealist David Lynch is in his public persona an upbeat, crusading optimist, and unlike those artists who concentrated on their world-changing art, Lynch spends much of his time on mere world-changing. Marcos Andrade's film follows Lynch as he travels from one megabookstore to another across a Brazil he otherwise sees very little of, signing a book, and graciously accepting praise. A genial advocate of the merits of Transcendental Meditation, Lynch doesn't have the space here to give the all-out lecture he's no doubt capable of delivering on the subject; rather, we pick up some of his intriguing comments on creativity along the way. Both Lynch and TM fans deserve more. G.R.
Saturday, April 24, 6:30 p.m., Monday, April 26, 9 p.m., and Tuesday, April 27, 12:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

The White Meadows
(Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
A mesmerizing and humanistic fable shot through with streaks of sunbaked neorealism, this wholly original saga follows a weathered yet dignified man who has devoted many long years to collecting tears from the inhabitants of a group of salt islands in Lake Urmia. An alchemist of sorts, he redeems sadness with an unspoken promise of future tidings. In fact, he can do nothing but observe the practice of various ancient, barbaric superstitions, such as the dispatching of a virgin to the clutches of the great lake, that stand in defiance of reason and progress. (Any implied reference to the reactionary religious forces controlling Iran is purely unintentional, of course.) Majestically photographed by Ebrahim Ghafouri and elegantly edited by Jafar Panahi (the brilliant filmmaker who was arrested again recently), The White Meadows plays like an ethnographic film at times and at others like a morality play. A unique moviegoing experience, it's not quite a masterpiece, but it's not to be missed, either. M.F.
Friday, April 23, 6:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 24, 9:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 8 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.


You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest
(Ché Sandoval, Chile)
Santiago, Chile's hookup culture is wittily traversed in 25-year-old Ché Sandoval's debut feature. Young Javier's sexual incompetence fails to please, and he self-pityingly drifts through the night in search of solace. Full of smoking, self-lacerating humor, and irrational jealousy, this film's key scene is a lengthy cafe conversation with Javier and an older friend trying to top each other with tales of miserable failure. Sandoval's flair for clever dialogue and characterization is matched by his ability to create a believable world out of the tattered web of prolonged adolescence. G.R.
Wednesday, April 28, 4:30 p.m., and Thursday, May 6, 6:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Monday, May 3, 9:30 p.m., at the Clay.


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