As in recent years, the "home" of the festival is 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 the Century Cinema 16 Mountain View. The SFIFF—which kicks off April 15 with a screening and party for Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes—always promises fun and surprises. Known guests at this point include Jarmusch and the RZA for the Opening Night Film, beloved dancer Cyd Charisse (feted April 16 with a screening of Silk Stockings and an onstage interview), and Lifetime Directing honoree Milos Forman, and Owens honoree Chris Cooper. The Film Society Awards Night is Thursday, April 22 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, but both stars will speak at retrospective screenings at the Castro, respectively, of Hair on Friday, April 23 and John Sayles's Matewan on Wednesday, April 21 (Forman's The Fireman's Ball and Taking Off will also screen on April 18, in succession, at the Castro). This year's closing night "attraction" will be Laws of Attraction, the new romantic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore, to be followed by a party at Club NV.
To review a complete festival schedule, go to www.sfiff.org.
I've seen Coffee and Cigarettes, the Opening Night Film, and recommend it. Jarmusch fans will eat up this ode to stimulants, and others will find something to like in the many loopy vignettes and odd-couple (or odd-trio) pairings, like the scene among the GZA, the RZA, and the Bill Murray (recommended). I also recently caught the wistful Italian film Three Step Dancing, a four-act look at life, death, love, and sex in rural Sardinia; for us Americans, it's a sort of dramatic travelogue, and the seasonal stories are hit and miss (a toss-up). Following are more extensive capsule reviews.
Everyday People (screens 4/16 and 4/18 at the Kabuki). San Franciscans mourning the loss of Sears Fine Foods may see the closure in a new light after viewing Everyday People, an HBO Films production directed by Jim McKay (Girls Town). Ostensibly about the closing of a neighborhood institution—a fictional diner-deli-bar called Raskin's—Everyday People explores the politics of race in contemporary America. McKay's forte is the workshop process, so when executive producer Nelson George sought to develop a story rooted in a vast collection of actual stories of racial incidence, he knew McKay was his man. The reams of stories turned into actors' improvisation, and then McKay's screenplay (culled from hours of videotapes) became the Bible for the 27-day shoot. Populated with unknown actors (some exceptional, some a bit logy), Everyday People shares a kinship with the socially conscious dramas of John Sayles. The day in the life examines gentrification from multiple angles: the working-class wait staff whose jobs go on the chopping block, the Jewish owner whose sellout plan comes under scrutiny, the African-American businessman closing the deal ("We don't discriminate—we want everybody's money"), and the diverse patrons who also face a big change in their landscape. As befits a film derived largely from improvisation, most scenes are duets, many of which rediscover the "lost art" of conversation: a passing showdown between the businessman (Ron Talbot) and a local proponent of black pride (Reg E. Cathey), an unlikely connection between a young black man off to college (Billoah Greene) and an elderly white man at the counter, and the businessman's challenging dialogue with a local barfly. McKay's work is sometimes more admirable than scintillating, but this original and thought-provoking film definitely deserves a look. Recommended. NOTE: producer Nelson George and director Jim McKay will attend the festival screenings.
James' Journey to Jerusalem (Massa'ot James Be'eretz Hakodesh) (screens 4/22 at the Kabuki and 4/25 at the PFA). "Let's sing of that tale that begins in a faraway village..." Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's modern riff on Voltaire's Candide pits a naive young man against a corrupt world. African villager James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) eagerly determines to see Jerusalem, the Holy Land of his Christian faith, but he encounters resistance at every turn. Taken in Tel Aviv for a border-hopping migrant worker, James winds up in jail and, shortly, in the indentured servitude of an exploitative labor boss who bails him out. Sent to clean for the boss's father (sprightly Arieh Elias), James charms the old man with his guilelessness. At the old man's endangered home, James tends a garden, learns that life (like backgammon) is "a game of chance," and takes to heart the old man's admonishment "Things aren't like in your village stories. Here, we prey on each other." Faced with casual racism, fickle friendship, and soulless profiteering—even from the local pastor—James loses his work ethic and gains a talent for thinking rather than working, his open idealism shifting to defensive hypocrisy. Bitingly funny and soulful to boot, James' Journey to Jerusalem diagnoses modern Israel's ills and astutely sizes up the fears and hopes of three generations on the borders of a Holy Land. Recommended. NOTE: director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz will attend the festival screenings.
The Man Who Copied (Homem Que Copiava, O) (screens 4/23 and 4/25 at the Kabuki). Alongside Fernando Meirelles's City of God, this Brazilian romantic comedy/film noir from Jorge Furtado signifies an explosion of adventurous talent in Brazil's film community. Lázaro Ramos plays André, a late-teenage copy clerk with artistic talent, low self-esteem, and empty pockets. Gabbing away on the soundtrack, André fills us in on his best laid plans (or best plans to get laid, as the case may be), but each hinges on money he doesn't have. So André begins planning how to get--or make--money. What follows is an unconventional romance between the peeping-tom André and his neighbor Sílvia (Leandra Leal), a complex crime movie, and a jaunty comedy with some of the richest laugh lines I've heard in some time. It all comes down to credible characterization, and though many may blanch at the film's moral relativism (some drastic measures may be too easily excused), few will leave this stylish, adventurous film unentertained. Highly recommended.
The Newcomers (Los Debutántes) (screens 4/24 and 4/26 at the Kabuki). Andrés Waissbluth's potent but somewhat juvenile Los Debutántes could be fairly described as the titillating intersection of Y tu Mamá También, Showgirls, and Pulp Fiction, emphasizing the dark sexuality and violent implications of those films and mostly eschewing the humor. Like Cuarón's Mexican allegory, Waissbluth's noir comments on modern life in its country of origin, particularly in this case the food chain of dependence in the underworld of Santiago, Chile. Since they moved from the southern city of Temuco, twenty-four-year-old Silvio (Néstor Cantillana) supports his seventeen-year-old brother Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda). A visit to a strip club in honor of Silvio's birthday yields several twists of fate. Soon, both brothers are involved with a stripper named Gracia (the stunning Antonella Ríos), and Silvio becomes "muscle" for the club's mafioso owner. Waissbluth tells the tale first from the perspective of Victor, then abruptly flashes back to Silvio's take, then Gracia's (whoops—she's the boss's moll), and finally the increasingly sordid story culminates in a tense standoff. A Chilean box office hit, The Newcomers shatters the traditional conservatism of Chile with its tangled web of criminal and emotional deceit, copious nudity, and a precocious cameo by infamous prostitute-turned-millionaire Anita Alvarado, the "Geisha of Chile." The film is juicy, and clever in its portrayal of trickle-down economics from the "Gringo" all the way down to the whores and teenagers; nevertheless, The Newcomers rankles with its juvenile misogyny. Even in Gracia's chapter, her motivations remain infuriatingly elusive, and Waissbluth's sympathies too apparently reside with the naive brothers. A toss-up. NOTE: director Andrés Waissbluth will attend the festival screenings.
That Day (Ce jour-là) (screens 4/17 at the PFA, and 4/19 and 4/21 at the Kabuki). Raoul Ruiz's kooky That Day takes a trowel to Swiss land and unearths the squirmy madness just beneath the surface. Purportedly set in "the near future," Ruiz's absurdist satire recalls Buñuel and Swiss playwright author-playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt in its needling of bourgeois complacency and ignorance as the high and mighty "get away with murder." In Ruiz's version of reality, he offers no guarantees of getting off scot free, and sanity appears to be a liability; the stongest and freest are the lunatics. A conspiracy topped by Michel Piccoli determines to kill the heir to a family fortune, by liberating a murderous insane-asylum inmate named Emile (Bernard Giraudeau) to be their angel of death. The heir, Livia (Elsa Zylberstein) is also light in the head, though she comically chastises Emile each time he rudely offs someone. By way of cinematographer Acácio de Almeida, Ruiz employs distorted lensework to heighten Emile's madness, split diopter shots to formalize the characters' distance from practical objects and each other, and location photography of overcast countryside exteriors to set the inappropriately placid mood. The unrelenting quirkiness is an asset and an obstacle: the non sequiturs are amusing but tend to tug Ruiz away from the specificity his satire needs. Still, the de facto marriage of Emile and Livia is funny and weirdly touching, and a farcical dance through a country homes's various doorways (accompanied with knife and gun) proves a comic highlight. Recommended.