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The 49th San Francisco International Film Festival (April 20-May 4, 2006)


With 97 features and 130 shorts, the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival gleefully gluts film buffs. From opening night film Perhaps Love—a Hong Kong musical romance with a pan-Asian cast—to the closing night film—Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion (both events with parties, natch), it's fifteen straight days of international movie heaven. The black-tie Film Society Award Night will honor Film Society Directing Award winner Werner Herzog (also here to unveil The Wild Blue Wonder during "An Evening with Werner Herzog" April 26 at the Castro), Peter J. Owens Award winner Ed Harris (who selected 1984's A Flash of Green for "An Evening with Ed Harris" April 28 at the Castro), Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting winner Jean-Claude Carriere (whose afternoon spotlight program April 29 at the Kabuki will include 1967's Belle de Jour), and Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award winner Guy Maddin (whose evening spotlight April 25 at the Kabuki will include a program of his short films).

"Home base" for the San Francisco International Film Festival remains the AMC Kabuki 8, though other venues include the glorious Castro Theatre, and, stretching into other corners of the Bay Area, the invaluable Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Landmark's Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto (seven more satellite venues stretch into corners of The City). One world premiere, 11 North American premieres, 12 US premieres, and 38 West Coast premieres will unspool at the SFIFF, which runs April 21-May 5, 2005.

Among the 145+ guests expected to attend the festival: Lily Tomlin and Virginia Madsen (to represent A Prairie Home Companion), John Turturro (for Centerpiece selection Romance and Cigarettes on April 29 at the Kabuki), Isabelle Huppert (for Gabrielle), Emmanuelle Seigner (for ZOOM! selection Backstage), Terry Zwigoff (for Art School Confidential), Alan Berliner (for Wide Awake), "Kid in the Hall" Mark McKinney (for his short film "I'm Sorry"), and Don McKellar (for short film "Phone Call from Imaginary Girlfriend"). Actress Tilda Swinton will give this year's "State of the Cinema Address" (April 29 at the Kabuki); there'll be panels, seminars, and book signings; and the Live Music for Film Series will include the performances of original Alloy Orchestra scores for 1927's The Eagle (with Rudolph Valentino) and a slate of silent comedies aimed at families (both April 23 at the Castro).

Of course, there's much, much more. To review a complete festival schedule, go to


Backstage (screens 5/2 at the Kabuki in S.F.) This year's ZOOM! selection (with the screening and after-party sponsored in part by Women in Film), Emmanuelle Bercot's Backstage is a creepy and admirably subtle look at the borderline personalities on both sides of the line between celebrity and citizen. Madonna-like French pop star Lauren (Emmanuelle Seigner) grudgingly participates in the botched reality-TV ambush of one of her biggest fans, 16-year-old Lucie (Isild Le Besco). After a meltdown in front of her idol, Lucie worms her way back into Lauren's presence and winds up squatting in her hotel as an assistant who winds up a bit too close for comfort. Both actresses are magnetic in their depictions of women on the edge, and Bercot cleverly uses suggestive lyrics and well-staged stress tests to tease out themes of the remote sexuality of celebrity and the unreasoned sense of ownership among fans. Recommended.

The Dignity of the Nobodies (La Dignidad de los Nadies) (screens 4/26 and 4/27 at the Kabuki in S.F., 4/29 at the PFA in Berkeley, and 5/1 at the Aquarius in Palo Alto) Fernando E. Solanas' second in a series of four documentaries on socio-economic strife in Argentina, The Dignity of the Nobodies packs a wallop by looking at history from a local and personal perspective. Solanas doesn't hide his point-of-view—that rampant government and police corruption crippled Argentina's working class, but left the human spirit intact. A female picketeer laments, "Argentina isn't Argentina anymore," and Solanas chides the people's movement for failing to stick to its guns and develop an alternative to the big-government status quo, but the director also tells inspiring stories of personal and communal resistance, like the group that organized successfully to shut down foreclosure auctions. Highly recommended.

The Heart of the Game (screens 4/22 at the Castro in S.F. and 4/25 at the Kabuki in S.F.) A sort of Hoop Dreams for girls, Ward Serrill's documentary centers around two characters: Darnellia Russell, an African-American contender who has to battle the system as well as her opponents on the court, and Bill Resler, Darnellia's somewhat eccentric but skilled white coach. Resler explains, with no false modesty, "I have ideas about basketball that I haven't seen other places," like bringing street ball to the high-school league by crafting no offensive plays, and emphasizing the psyche-out element with themes like "Pack of Wolves" and the directive to "Look in their eyes!" After a few years roll by in Resler's program, Darnellia faces a personal and legal challenge that threatens to stop her basketball career and education short, making for a suspenseful and inspirational story. Recommended.

The House of Sand (Casa de Areia) (screens 4/23 and 4/24 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Curiosity seekers may wish to check out Andrucha Waddington's latest film, which stars his wife Fernanda Torres in two roles, and her mother Fernanda Montenegro in three roles (Seu Jorge of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has a key supporting role). The trick plot enabling this Electra Complex situation tragedy is somewhat novel, but surprisingly not enough to sustain even a 103-minute running time. The theme is that sinking feeling called life—an erosion of time, a cycle of aging in which daughters supplant mothers until the sun eventually burns out. Sound depressing? It is, and Waddington's deliberate pacing and emphasis on image over dialogue succeed in fashioning a handsome but plodding picture. Some will enjoy Waddington's ironic poetry, but more will see a parody of art-house pretention. Skip it.

Iberia (screens 4/21 at the the PFA in Berkeley, 4/23 at the Castro in S.F., and 4/25 and 4/27 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Carlos Saura won hearts with the 1995 dance film Flamenco, and Iberia takes a similar tack, presenting music and dance in a staged setting. Using mirrors, lights, slide and video projection, shadowplay, and even fire and rain, Saura brings restless creativity to his interpretation of the music of Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz, with a focus on his "Iberia" suite for piano. Some of the dance pieces have a purposeful rehearsal (or even dance-class) feel; others are more polished presentations (a solo dance behind and under a diaphanous plastic curtain comes to mind). Unfortunately, the dancing and music is good, but hardly extraordinary, meaning Iberia doesn't qualify as a particularly compelling dance crossover picture. A toss-up (for dance fanatics and Albéniz aficionados only).

Iraq in Fragments (screens 4/26 and 4/28 at the Kabuki in S.F. and 5/4 at the PFA in Berkeley) The beautifully photographed digital doc Iraq in Fragments is consistently frustrating, but still a valuable glimpse into contemporary Iraq. Director James Longley devotes roughly a half-hour to each of three segments of the Iraqi populace: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Longley puts a special emphasis on children, which highlights the pressures weighing on Iraq's future without providing much useful information about the forces operating within the country today. The first segment focuses on discouraged 11-year-old Mohammed Haithem, shamed by having failed first grade twice and abused by his auto-mechanic boss/surrogate father (Mohammed's real father is missing, and his mother and grandmother never appear on camera). Part two, though never incisive, more usefully navigates the political and religious mindset and harsh action of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite followers, and the third segment spends some time with rural Kurds. Recommended.

A Prairie Home Companion (screens 5/4 at the Castro in S.F.) Robert Altman teams up with Garrison Keillor to adapt the latter's long-running radio revue, and the results are eccentrically entertaining. Shot in Minneapolis' Fitzgerald Theatre (the real-life home of Keillor's show), Altman's film imagines a funhouse-mirror version of the radio program. Keillor's top actors—Tim Russell and Sue Scott—are here, but they're atypically playing one role each, as part of an ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones. A nutty, fictional ode-elegy to a show that's still going strong, A Prairie Home Companion offers a unique hybrid of a folksy American showman and an improvisatory impresario. Recommended.

Sa-Kwa (screens 4/21, 5/1, and 5/4 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Kang Yi-kwan's debut feature is emotionally scrupulous, sincere, and naturalistic in its portrait of a woman trying and failing to step away from her family and start her own with Mr. Right. Hyun-jung (Moon so-ri) gets off to a rocky start when her beloved boyfriend Min-suk (Lee Sun-kyun) unceremoniously dumps her. She rebounds with sad-sack Sang-hoon (Kim Tae-woo), who's a little too needy to light Hyun-jung's fire. "I don't think this is it," she says of her life, but amusing family dynamics help this true-to-life dramedy stay above the doldrums. Moon so-ri proves why she's considered South Korea's best actress, and Kang Yi-kwan establishes himself as one to watch. Recommended.

Sólo Dios sabe (Only God Knows) (screens 4/30 and 5/1 at the Kabuki in S.F.) First-time helmer Carlos Bolado's meandering melodrama benefits enormously from its attractive leads, Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también) and Alice Braga (Cidade de Deus). A prayerful Mexican journalist, Luna's character falls head over heels for Braga's waylaid Brazilian tourist. Their romance is complicated by her current affair with a married professor, followed by yet more dramatic twists. The cute and sweet romance of the film's first half yields to musings on faith (particularly Afro-American religion Candomblé) and fate. The pace of the 114-minute film becomes slack, which is strange, since Bolado made his name as an editor (Like Water for Chocolate), but if you're in the mood for a wet-eyed romance, Sólo Dios sabe fits the bill. A toss-up.

Underground Game (Jogo Subterrâneo) (screens 4/30 and 5/3 at the Kabuki in S.F.) For Underground Game, writer-director Roberto Gervitz and co-writer Jorge Durán adapt a story by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar previously inspired Antonioni's Blow Up, but Gervitz's intitally intriguing psychodrama quickly becomes a bore, and amounts to emotional nonsense. Nightclub pianist Martin (Felipe Camargo) stalks women on the subway, hoping that one will prove his fated match by following the pre-ordained route of transfers and destination that he has scribbled in his notebook. When a woman who fails the test (Maria Luisa Mendonça) nevertheless captivates him, Martin abandons his self-imposed rules to date her. Unfortunately, the woman's shady past catches up with her, causing the film's repetitive torpor and fortune-cookie epigrams to erupt into laughable melodrama. Skip it.

Who Killed the Electric Car? (screens 4/21 and 4/22 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Chris Paine's cogent doc investigates how the electric car was nearly reborn in the last twenty years, then buried alive. Suspects include the oil and car companies, the California Air Resources Board, the federal government, and American consumers. According to author Joseph J. Romm, the oil companies "opposed the creation of an electric infrastucture." General Motors squelched its own EV1 product, claiming lack of consumer interest, then repossessed every last car from devoted leasers who pleaded to buy them. A majority of American consumers remained largely ignorant, underinformed, and skittish about the electric car, though the car companies themselves deserve much of the credit for consumer concerns. Paine's evidence—including dissenting voices--is consistently illuminating. Recommended.

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