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The San Francisco International Film Festival—the original American film festival—celebrates 50 years of excellence this year with a program that's filled to bursting with 108 features and 92 shorts; the star-studded guest list includes plenty of local heroes of cinema. This year's fest kicks off with the Italian Golden Door and wraps up with the French film La Vie En Rose (both events with parties, natch, and both reviewed below). There's the customary black-tie Film Society Award Night, honoring Film Society Directing Award winner Spike Lee (When the Levees Broke, Acts II and III will screen during "An Evening with Spike Lee" May 2 at the Castro, and the full four part doc screens 5/2 at SFMOMA and and 5/4 at the Castro), Peter J. Owens Award winner Robin Williams (who selected The Fisher King for "An Evening with Robin Williams" May 4 at the Castro), Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting winner Peter Morgan (whose afternoon spotlight program May 5 at the Kabuki will include 2003's The Deal), Mel Novikoff Award winner Kevin Brownlow (appearing with his restored version of 1929's The Iron Mask 4/28 at the Castro) and Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award winner Heddy Honigmann (whose evening spotlight May 1 at the Kabuki will include a screening of her latest work Forever).
New to the awards parade this year are the Midnight Awards, celebrating dynamic young actors. Into the wee hours of 4/28, Rosario Dawson and Sam Rockwell will be feted at the W Hotel in S.F. "Home base" for the San Francisco International Film Festival remains the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki, 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 (additional satellite venues stretch into corners of The City). Three world premiere, eleven North American premieres, five US premieres, and forty West Coast premieres will unspool at the SFIFF, which runs April 26-May 10, 2007.
Among the upwards of 200 special guests expected to attend the festival: filmmakers Carroll Ballard, Bard Bird, Ben Burtt, Chris Columbus, Philip Kaufman, Walter Murch, Rob Nilsson, and Saul Zaentz (to represent the SF-film-industry doc Fog City Mavericks), Ron Howard (to hand off Peter Morgan's award), Parker Posey and Hal Hartley (for Fay Grim), Danny Glover (for Bamako), Guy Maddin (for Brand on the Brain!), and a slew of international talent. World-renowned stage and screen director Peter Sellars 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 Jonathan Richman performing to The Phantom Carriage.
Of course, there's much, much more. To review a complete festival schedule, go to www.sffs.org.
Delirious (screens 5/5 at the Kabuki in S.F.) The festival's Centerpiece selection is the amusing and heartfelt Delirious, from indie darling Tom DiCillo. Steve Buscemi gives a crackerjack leading performance as Les, a profane, selfish, hypocritical, star-struck, self-absorbed paparazzo with a hair-trigger temper. When he accepts a guileless homeless youth named Toby (Michael Pitt) as his unpaid assistant, Les deals with new feelings of acceptance and hope in his otherwise dismal existence. Though the material about the line that divides celebrities and "peons" isn't particularly fresh, DCillo and his stars handle it expertly. Recommended.
Flanders (screens 5/6 at the PFA in Berkeley, 5/8 and 5/9 at the Kabuki in S.F.) French provocateur Bruno Dumont returns with Flanders, which appropriately begins by observing the ominously overcast gloom of the northern-France countryside. What follows is a troubling mood piece about the human animal's aggressive physicality and repression of romantic feeling, morality, and war trauma. In short, it's about screwing and killing, and how we learn to live with both actions. Samuel Boidin and Adelaide Leroux, as the young farmer-soldier and his undeclared girlfriend, prove in sync with the film's porous interiority. The deliberate pacing—and a needlessly abrupt plot turn—test an audience's patience, but Flanders is a beautifully photographed meditation with a distinct intimacy of thought and feeling. Recommended.
Golden Door (screens 4/26 at the Castro in S.F.) Writer-director Emanuele Crialese (Respiro) returns with Golden Door, an unfortunately pretentious, prolonged look at the Italian-American immigrant experience. Starting with a literal uphill climb and ending with its characters bobbing in a river of milk, Golden Door is all too successful in evoking simple-mindedness and interminability. Stronger actors could anchor Crialese's stylistic meandering, but the bland cast—including Charlotte Gainsbourg—offers too little. The film's most effective passages are the scenes at Ellis Island scenes, which, by now, is well-trodden territory. Not recommended.
La Vie En Rose (screens 5/10 at the Castro in S.F.) Oliver Dahan's epic treatment of the life of Edith Piaf is almost guaranteed to madden both those who know every detail of Piaf's life and those who know nothing about the internationally successful chanteuse. The sticking point is Dahan's shuffle-play narrative structure, which is either hugely ambitious or a desperate attempt to "find" the film in the editing room. Dahan deserves the benefit of the doubt for his often stunningly realized film, which is more a visual-aural poem about Piaf than a definitive bioepic of Piaf's Byzantine life story. Marion Cotillard as Piaf and original vocals by the late "little sparrow" are reasons enough to see La Vie En Rose. Recommended.
Murch (screens 4/27 at SFMOMA, 4/29 at the Castro in S.F., 5/1 at the Kabuki in S.F., and 5/5 at the PFA in Berkeley) Film nerds should proceed immediately to Edie Ichioka and David Ichioka's doc Murch, which is essentially a 76-minute master class with editing genius Walter Murch. Essentially, we get a one-camera view of Murch on a sofa talking, with interspersed clips from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. But it's enough to hear Murch explain his editing theory and tales from the trenches, including how he, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola met and ascended together with American Zoetrope. Points off from the filmmakers for their cutesy attempt to demonstrate Murch's ideas with herky-jerky editing tricks. Recommended.
Private Fears in Public Places (screens 5/1 at the PFA in Berkeley, 5/3 and 5/7 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Alan Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places—based on an Alan Ayckbourn play—suggests a tasteful, Gallic version of Love Actually. Constructed primarily of sharply written dialogue duets enacted by an amusing ensemble, the film makes its characters instantly fascinating; unfortunately, that tension gradually unwinds as the storylines amount to little that's coherent or credible. Resnais annoyingly places a gentle transitional snowfall between every single scene, though the scenes themselves make visual reference to the blinding purity that's the flip side of the black mortal void. Both life and death are mockingly silent as to their meaning, leaving these despairing Parisians to struggle for personal connections. Recommended.