Combustible Celluloid

The 53nd San Francisco International Film Festival

Festival Front Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

APRIL 22, 2010: This is my fourteenth San Francisco International Film Festival, and so far the entries have been fairly even, no real masterpieces so far, but nothing too terrible either. The following are capsule reviews for the festival's first couple of days. Please check back here for more reviews soon! (JMA)

MAY 6, 2010: The festival ended as it began: pretty solid overall, with very few masterpieces, but hardly any duds. Hopefully viewers will be able to enjoy these movies throughout the rest of the year, either in regular release or on home video. (JMA)

Micmacs ***1/2
Micmacs is a delightful dark comedy with much of the cartoonish logic of Amélie, but also a parable about the evils of arms dealers. (It's lighter and more satisfying than Jeunet's war film A Very Long Engagement.) Danny Boon stars as Bazil, a man whose father was killed after stepping on a landmine, and who himself gets shot in the head while criminals are escaping the scene of a crime. He survives, but loses his job and his apartment and winds up living with an underground "family" of misfits, collecting, fixing and selling junk. He discovers the headquarters of the manufacturers of both the killer landmine and his bullet (still lodged in his head); he begins a Yojimbo-like strategy to play one against the other and bring them both down. Taken separately, the characters can seem thin, each one defined by a single trait, but together, they form a wonderful whole. And Jeunet's wonderful, playful logic and effortless storytelling save the day. Micmacs is the opening night feature, screening April 22. In French.
Around a Small Mountain ***
The former French New Waver Jacques Rivette is one of my favorite living filmmakers; he normally makes lengthy movies with room for lots of exploration, romance and mystery, even if none of the results are very conventional. His Va Savoir, from 2001, was one of his lightest works to date, and it was 154 minutes in its short version. But Rivette's new one, Around a Small Mountain, is only 84 minutes, and it feels as if it's missing something. An Italian motorist Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) stops to help a stranded French woman, Kate (Jane Birkin), and learns that she's a member of a circus. He follows her and begins hanging around, befriending some clowns and a young woman who has grown up in that environment. He helps out wherever he can, but nothing major happens. He also appears to have fallen in love with Kate, but little comes of this. Kate mostly sulks about her mysterious past. It's not that this is a bad film; it has most of Rivette's usual touches, and it's charming, but it just seems to go by too fast without settling on anything. In French. [See my longer review at] (April 23)
Nymph ***
The mysterious, creepy Nymph is the latest from Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, Last Life in the Universe). Long-haired photographer Nop (Jayanama Nopachai) is married to the pretty May (Wanida Termthanaporn), and the spark has gone out of their marriage. May is currently sleeping with her boss (Chamanun Wanwinwatsara), who is also in love with her. Nop and May go on a camping trip to the woods, which are filled with astonishing, beautiful, haunting trees. Nop goes missing, and when he unexpectedly turns up again, May re-thinks the nature of her relationships. Director Ratanaruang spices things up with a few alluring shots of a forest "nymph" who may be a supernatural spirit in charge of everything. There are also some truly dazzling tracking shots through the woods, which are used as a mood-setter and a tease. When it comes to the human characters, things are a tad on the neat side, but otherwise, it's an effective film. In Thai. (April 23)
The White Meadows ***1/2
Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) is a collector of human tears, perpetually rowing his boat between the islands on Iran's Lake Urmia and landing wherever duty calls. At first, he attends the funeral of a beautiful young girl, but is surprised when he tries to steal a look under the shroud and discovers a very much alive, boy stowaway. He agrees to take the boy on as an apprentice, but Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof (Iron Island) refuses to focus on anything so narratively trite. Rather, he focuses on a series of incidents that are superstitious, bizarre, moving, and terrifying. In one, citizens speak into glass jars, which are then strapped to one man's back; the man is lowered into a well to deliver the jars (and the wishes/complaints therein) but must return back before sunrise. Rasoulof creates some astonishingly beautiful shots filled with water and sky and strange land formations, but the movie's mood is always slightly, deliberately cockeyed, as if weighed down with too much salt. In Persian. (April 23)
My Dog Tulip ***
Veteran independent animator Paul Fierlinger -- best known for his short cartoons on TV's "Sesame Street" -- makes his feature debut (along with co-director and wife Sandra Fierlinger) with this lovely film based on J.R. Ackerley's novel. An aging writer gets a dog for a companion and tells the story of how they become trusted friends, enduring a visit from the narrator's sister, and a long, convoluted attempt at breeding. The animation style is gentle and simple, with pointed humor and plenty of breathing room. Best of all, the film manages a genuine emotional connection with the title dog (who does not talk, by the way). Christopher Plummer narrates, and Isabella Rossellini and Lynn Redgrave provide other voices. In English. (April 24)
Cracks **
Ridley Scott's daughter (and Tony Scott's niece) Jordan Scott makes her feature debut with this, one of the festival's duds. Though, fortunately, it's at least unintentionally funny and could wind up with a kind of demented cult following. Based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, the film takes place in the 1930s at a girls' school. Di (Juno Temple) is a "team captain," in charge of a group of girls, and worships her teacher Miss G (Eva Green), who has organized a diving team. Everything changes when a spoiled Spanish girl, Fiamma (María Valverde) turns up, challenges Di's authority, and captures Miss G's attention. It turns into a high-pitched, hysterical power play with lots of glowering and glaring and lesbian lust. Out of all this ridiculousness, however, comes one promising actress, a 20 year-old blonde beauty with an unfortunate name: Imogen Poots. Director Scott rarely focuses on her, but she still manages to pop out of every scene. I imagine you will be hearing more from her. In English. (April 24)
Transcending Lynch ***
It must be tempting, while making a documentary about David Lynch, to try and indulge in some Lynchian-type imagery. Director Marcos Andrade does that from time to time, but he also manages a sometimes revealing and sometimes touching portrait of the artist as he tours South America with his book about transcendental meditation. Lynch talks about how he has been meditating each and every day since the late 1970s, and how it has brought him a kind of peace. And indeed, he seems peaceful and patient as he fields endless questions from reporters, mostly about his movies. He never answers definitively on any movie-related topic, and mainly wants to expound upon meditating, but the fans that line up for his autograph and to shake his hand don't seem to care; they love him all the same. When the movie discovers this clash between the neat, calm, well-spoken little man and the hoards of fans that treat him like a rock star, it finds its greatest poetry. Additionally, Andrade doesn't directly sell the meditation concept, and not everyone will be converted, but some might be. In English. (April 24)
Everyone Else ***1/2
The second feature by German filmmaker Maren Ade, Everyone Else is a rare movie that concentrates more on genuine characters and emotions more than it does visual style. For some, it may delve a bit too deep into painful territory, the source of which -- of course -- is lack of communication. Chris (Lars Eidinger) is a tall, gangly small-time architect, and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) is a tough, pretty music publicist for a band called the Shames. Together this German couple is vacationing in Italy, and from the start, everything seems off-kilter. Gitti has a tense encounter with Chris' niece, and the couple never seems to be on the same page at the same moment. Things get worse when an architect colleague of Chris's turns up; Chris wants both to avoid and impress the more successful man, though Gitti sees this more clearly than Chris does. Ade films in a grungy, realistic style much like Cassavetes, and though the film has drawn comparisons to Antonioni, Bergman and Rossellini, it lacks the "bigger picture" feel of those films; Ade moves closer and uses her camera to depict alienation, as if this stuff happens every day. And it does. In German. (April 25)
Soul Kitchen ***
German-Turkish director Fatih Akin sets aside his tense cross-cultural dramas for a moment to make this high-energy comedy of errors, which is sort of a wintertime equivalent to his delightful summertime rom-com In July (2000). Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos) runs a sleazy, greasy little restaurant in a run-down part of town that the locals seem to love. He can't pay his taxes, his sexy girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is about to move to Shanghai and wants Zinos to come with her. And his brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) has just been given daytime work passes from prison and needs a job (but would rather not actually have to work). In the middle of all this, Zinos impulsively hires an out-of-work master chef and throws out his back. Each time we turn around Akin (and co-screenwriter Bousdoukos) throws in something crazy, such as building inspectors, aphrodisiacs, midnight raids, unexpected romances, reckless gambling, and increasing back pain. Akin keeps the atmosphere loose and realistic and despite the usual third-act scramble to wrap up all the plot threads, the mood and the humor are well balanced throughout. In German. (April 26)
Cairo Time ***
Ruba Nadda's gorgeous Cairo Time has three stars: the luminous Patricia Clarkson, the lanky, gentle Alexander Siddig, and Cairo itself, sprawled out around and between them at every moment. It's one of those movies in which the air itself -- its smells and warmth -- seems to emanate from the screen. Clarkson plays Juliette, who arrives in Cairo hoping to meet her husband, a NATO man. Instead, Tareq (Siddig) meets her and informs her that her husband is stuck in Gaza. Tareq used to work for the husband but recently retired to run a coffee shop. He offers his services to Juliette should she need them. Juliette is far from the ugly American; she's quiet and polite, but still blunders into some odd situations. She finds that men not only follow her, but brush right up against her. She also wanders into Tareq's café without realizing that it's for men only. She even boards a bus for Gaza without realizing the military danger involved. Nadda unfolds this with a gentle, observant pace, relying on Clarkson's deep, thoughtful performance to help drive things (and show things down). Clarkson brings an entire history to this character with just her eyes, face and body. Thankfully, Tareq is shown to have his dark side as well; he's more than just the "pure," unsullied, non-American native. When these two fall in love, the movie avoids big, passionate moments or painful payoffs. It doesn't blame the exotic locale, either. It's just something that happened in-between moments. In English & Arabic. [See my longer review at] (April 28)
White Material ****
The great Claire Denis returns with one of her most narratively conventional movies; even though it has a few flashbacks and flash-forwards here and there, it more or less follows a plot. It even features a big star, Isabelle Huppert, in a strong lead role. But it's also one of her grimmest and most relentless movies. Huppert stars as Maria Vial, a French coffee grower in Africa. She gets word that the French army is packing up and leaving in the midst of a revolution between the African army and a band of rebels, neither of which is too happy to have white people around. Maria's husband (Christopher Lambert, of Highlander) tries to make secret arrangements to get the family out of the country, but Maria is more interested in finishing the harvest, which will take a mere five days. She has an attitude of entitlement; she knows her neighbors and doesn't believe anything truly terrible could happen. Things grow more complex with Maria's grown, lazy son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) suddenly snaps, and when a famous rebel soldier known as "The Boxer" (Isaach De Bankolé) takes refuge on the plantation. As always, Denis creates a remarkable texture here, using the land and air and temperature and atmosphere as part of the fabric of the movie; and this time the land is really what's at stake. The movie asks the question: who really deserves to live here? And, as with all her movies, Denis thankfully does not answer. [See my longer review at] (April 29)
Get Low ***
Aaron Schneider is a former cinematographer and the director of the Oscar-winning short film Two Soldiers (2003); he makes his feature directorial debut with Get Low. It feels like a debut, it's not totally assured, and it wobbles a bit here and there between tones. But thankfully Schneider is smart enough to have hired such talented veterans as Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, each of whom brings some personality and balance to most of the scenes, and manages to sell the entire package as a whole. Duvall plays Felix, an old hermit who suddenly decides to throw his own funeral (while still alive) so that he can hear all the stories people have told about him over the years. He hires funeral director Frank Quinn (Murray) and Frank's upright assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) for the job. But the more things progress, the more Felix realizes that he needs to tell his own story. (The movie makes the mistake of opening on a "mysterious" flashback to this incident.) A couple of the subplots, one involving a robbery, never go anywhere, and the comic and tragic moods never quite mix. But thanks to the skill of the actors, the tragic moments come out quietly and the comic ones come out warmly. Get Low screens April 30 as part of the festival's tribute to the career of Robert Duvall.
To Die Like a Man ***
Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma, Two Drifters) has a frank, blunt storytelling style; his images and moments can seem clumsy one moment, and bold the next. His third feature, To Die Like a Man, tells the story of an aging Lisbon drag queen, Tonia (Fernando Santos), who no longer draws the crowds to her fado show, and is on the verge of losing her young lover, Rosario (Alexander David). Tonia and Rosario take a mystical road trip together and wind up at the home of a pair of drag queens, hunting snipes in the woods. The picture is mainly about Tonia's struggle for identity, not only as a male or a female, but also as the parent of a soldier (who goes AWOL after shooting and killing a comrade), and as a human being with memories (treasured artifacts keep disappearing from Tonia's home). It's so deadpan at times that it seems like a joke, or a dream. It's always bizarre, but for all this, To Die Like a Man still manages to find something genuinely, beautifully moving, like a steady heartbeat in a very confused body. In Portuguese. (May 1)
Air Doll **1/2
The acclaimed, but inconsistent Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to his first non-realistic film since the wonderful After Life, but it's also a million miles away from his previous film, the outstanding Ozu-inspired Still Walking. Air Doll goes on far too long and plays with so many different themes that it seems more like a doodle than a film. It involves an inflatable sex doll named Nozomi (Doona Bae), which "finds a heart" and comes to life. We see endless montages of her discovering the small beauties of life, as well as lifelessly enduring the mechanical pounding of oversexed men. She gets a job in a video store and falls in love with another clerk there; they have several sweet little dates in which he explains more things to her. (This also allows for lots of little movie-related conversations and references.) There's an old man with more advice, and images of garbage and so many other themes that it takes Kore-eda a full half hour just to end the film. The ending could have been an O. Henry-style stinger, but it comes so late and after so much meandering that it just thuds. In Japanese. (April 30)
Julia ***1/2
French director Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels) returns after a long absence with this harrowing American film. It takes a cue from John Cassavetes' Gloria (1980), starting with a hard-living, older woman. This time, she's an alcoholic played by Tilda Swinton. After a series of incidents and temptations, Julia winds up kidnapping a boy, Tom (Aidan Gould), with the hope of reuniting him with his mother and collecting a large fee. But instead, Julia winds up on the run to Mexico, where the boy is kidnapped again. Zonca turns in a very long (144 minutes), very tough movie that switches moods and logic almost haphazardly (perhaps like a drunk?). Despite all this, it's a gripping, highly effective picture. The thanks mostly goes to Ms. Swinton, who gives a truly astonishing performance. She puts most of the actual 2009 Oscar nominees to shame. We can start by celebrating her surface achievements like seeming to understand the logic of being drunk and being an alcoholic, to the achievement of hiding her British accent behind a very authentic, attitude-ridden American accent, but it goes much, much deeper than that. Over the course of the film, we see Julia's long-buried instincts awakened. She's not redeemed as much as she simply becomes more human. Julia was selected by film critic Roger Ebert, who received the Mel Novikov award at this year's festival. The extraordinary evening included tributes by directors Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman and Philip Kaufman. (May 1)
Alamar ***1/2
Pedro González-Rubio wrote and directed this absolutely breathtaking portrait of a father and son, so realistic that it plays like a documentary. (The people and their situations are real, but the events of the film are created.) It starts with the story of a whirlwind love affair between a man of Mayan heritage, Jorge, and an Italian woman, Roberta. They have a son, Natan, before they realize that their two worlds are just too different and they split up. Alamar begins as Natan goes to spend a little time with his father, a fisherman in the Banco Chinchorro area near Mexico. Jorge -- who works with his father, Natan's grandfather -- goes about his day and teaches Natan all about fishing and boating and snorkeling, as if they were the most amazing new toys. Natan becomes enamored of a beautiful egret he names Blanquita. There's hardly any conversation, and what there is seems pitched just to pass the time; the sun and the sea and the wind are just as important as the son, father and grandfather. The movie has a very relaxing acceptance of the world's rhythms. It's male bonding at its most natural. González-Rubio won the festival's New Directors Award. In Spanish. (May 1)
The Loved Ones ***1/2
One of the festival's late-night selections, this surprising gore fest from Australia remains one of my favorites. Writer/director Sean Byrne mixes up a perfect combination of humanity, dark, dry humor and bloody terror. Handsome high-schooler Brent (Xavier Samuel) lives a tormented existence; he blames himself for his father's death in a car accident. But things are looking up, as he will be going to prom with a good girl who really loves him. When the shy Lola (Robin McLeavy) also asks him to the dance, he has to break the news that he already has a date, which begins a load of trouble. Simultaneously, Brent's best pal, a tubby stoner called Sac (Richard Wilson) manages a date with the sexy, dangerous Mia (Jessica McNamee). I can't say any more, since The Loved Ones constantly moves in unexpected directions with these two subplots. Byrne's use of space and light is very highly skilled; he gets some very good dark laughs in during the third act. Ms. McLeavy is a true find, managing to use her eyes and body to convey coyness, shyness, sultriness and downright insanity. In English. (May 2)
Splice ***1/2
A last-minute addition to this year's festival, Vincenzo Natali's Splice is a terrific sci-fi summer treat that somehow manages to combine a very twisted, line-crossing sensibility with a genuine kind of sweetness. It has a most peculiar, appealing tone, which makes even the most familiar moments seem fresh. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as Clive and Elsa, a pair of genetic scientists -- and lovers -- who have created some new life forms that may also provide medicine for animals. When bureaucrats threaten to take over their operation, they decide to work on a human-based creature, and "Dren" is born. She grows very quickly and causes no end of complications and surprises, made more complicated by the fact that Clive and Elsa must keep her hidden. (They have crossed some serious ethical boundaries.) Natali -- who directed the 1997 cult film Cube -- rarely steps wrong here, with outstanding achievements in everything from set design to sound design. The striking Delphine Chanéac plays Dren as an adult. In English. (May 4)
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