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News broke this week that Woody Allen's tour of great international cities (most recently Paris and Rome) will bring him next to the City by the Bay: San Francisco, California, USA. It's felicitous news as San Francisco prepares once again for its destination cinema event: The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 19—May 3, and it's once again loaded up with intriguing international titles, notable domestic pictures making their Bay Area premieres, tribute events, master classes, and retrospectives.
103 feature films (including around thirty documentaries) and seven shorts programs make up the bulk of the fest, but it wouldn't be the SFIFF without big names and galas. Five-time Oscar-nominee Kenneth Branagh will receive the Founder's Directing Award and hold court at "An Evening with Kenneth Branagh" (4/27 at the historic Castro Theatre), two-time Oscar nominated actress Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives) will collect the Peter J. Owens Award (4/25 at the Castro), and two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) will take home the Persistence of Vision Award (4/22 at the Sundance Kabuki) in recognition of her documentary work. The great screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys) gets the Kanbar Award (4/28 at the Sundance Kabuki) for excellence in screenwriting, while French critic and director Pierre Rissient—the subject of a 2007 documentary by American critic Todd McCarthy—wins the Mel Novikoff Award (4/28 at the Castro) for raising awareness of the best in cinema. Thereafter, the San Francisco Film Society's late executive director Bingham Ray will be honored by a screening of his favorite film, The Third Man (4/28 at the Castro).
There's plenty more, including Jonathan Lethem delivering the annual "State of Cinema Address" (4/21 at the Sundance Kabuki), four joyously hilarious Buster Keaton Shorts (4/23 at the Castro) accompanied by Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs), Sam Green's "live documentary" event The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, and retrospective screenings of not one but two movie musicals featuring The Who: Ken Russell's Tommy (4/21 at the Sundance Kabuki)—hosted by "midnight movie maven" Peaches Christ—and Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia (4/28 at the Castro). Francis Ford Coppola unveils his horror flick Twixt in both 3D (4/28 at the Castro) and 2D (5/3 at the Kabuki) among new films by Hirokazu Kore-eda (I Wish), Lawrence Kasdan (Darling Companion), Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights), Mathieu Kassovitz (Rebellion), Johnnie To (Life Without Principle), and documentarians Alex Gibney (The Last Gladiators), Kirby Dick (The Invisible War), Jessica Yu (Last Call at the Oasis), among many others.
To review a complete festival schedule, go to http://festival.sffs.org/.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (4/23 and 4/25 at the Sundance Kabuki): Alison Klayman's all-access documentary takes us into the multimedia life of China's most controversial artist, the recently jailed Ai Weiwei. The Communist regime's worst nightmare, Ai is a committed rabble-rouser, making documentaries and art installations about goverment failures and institutional corruption while photographing and Tweeting every move he makes. Klayman's skillfully edited film briskly gives us Weiwei's backstory and shadows the artist, his entourage, and their own cameras as they seek justice and create art. If you're not already convinced Ai is an important and brave artist, you will be. Recommended.
Bonsái (4/20 and 4/22 at the Sundance Kabuki; 4/24 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley): Tastefully adapted from Alejandro Zambra's novella, Cristián Jiménez's Bonsái proves endlessly fascinating in its examination of the intersection of life, love, and literature. Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Natalia Galgani) get the hots for each other as they competitively lie about having finished Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Years later, Julio tries to keep fresh his relationship with Blanca (Trinidad González), partly by reading to her a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about himself and Emilia, who themselves tried to cling to their relationship by reading in bed. Quietly effective performances and patient direction highlight a film too smart and subtle ever to get American distribution. Recommended.
Darling Companion (4/23 and 4/24 at the Sundance Kabuki): Lawrence Kasdan's eleventh feature as a director comes as a disappointment. As headlined by Diane Keaton and regular Kasdan star Kevin Kline, Darling Companion certainly seems like a great opportunity, but the script by Kasdan and his wife Meg is never less than utterly obvious. The title character is a stray dog adopted by Keaton's one-percenter, but when the dog hightails it during a weekend getaway in the Rockies, the ensemble cast (including Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, Mark Duplass and Ayelet Zurer) must track down the dog, bonding and healing all the way. For dog lovers only; people lovers should look elsewhere. Skip it.
Gimme the Loot (4/20 and 4/24 at the Sundance Kabuki; 4/21 at the Film Society Cinema): Two NYC graffiti artists set their sights on a short-term goal: to tag the New York Mets' "Home Run Apple." The energy of the city itself is the true star here, since the unpolished acting (semi-improvised around the scripted lines) proves decidedly uneven. A la Clerks (but less amusing), writer-director Adam Leon's first feature shares a wastrel aimlessness with its characters. Only when their brusque, profane inelegance lets up to allow the possibility of romance—actually a frequent occurence in the film's seventy-eight minutes—do they engage our sympathy. The rest of the time, they're unapologetic hoods, looking for their next mark to rip off in hopes of alleviating their boredom and saving face. A toss-up.
How to Survive a Plague (4/20 and 4/22 at the Sundance Kabuki): Focusing on the work of AIDS advocacy groups ACT-UP and TAG, David France's documentary skillfully makes use of a wealth of archival footage and interviews, which make up the vast majority of what's seen on screen. Some well-placed modern interview footage fills in the blanks and, in the film's final movement, allows us to see and hear from the HIV-positive survivors. The protest footage is thrilling, but so is the revelation that the leaders who arose to take on government intransigence (on the part of the FDA and George H.W. Bush) had sharp political and scientific minds, honed by necessity and practiced in their own research and development of a treatment agenda. Highly recommended.
The Intouchables (4/24 and 4/26 at the Sundance Kabuki): The Intouchables has crowd-pleaser written all over it. Wildly popular in its native France (and poised for domestic distribution from The Weinstein Company), the comedy-drama has its basis in a true story, but writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano whip up the material into a buddy-movie froth. François Cluzet (Tell No One) plays a quadraplegic white millionaire who unexpectedly plucks the brash, black Driss (Omar Sy) out of the ghetto to be a live-in home-care provider. The classical-music-loving millionaire—also a closet adventurer—appreciates Driss' insistence on prodding his boss out of his discomfort zone and into his need for speed and romance. Well-acted and slick, but also discomfitingly retrograde. A toss-up.
Where Do We Go Now? (4/27 and 4/30 at the Sundance Kabuki): Nadine Labaki's Lebanese Lysistrata details the efforts of a group of female friends (led by Labaki's Amale) to distract their Christian and Muslim men before they tear each other's throats out. Part religiopolitical satire, part smalltown sitcom (much of the comedy revolves around the village-wide event of hooking up a cathode ray tube TV and getting so-so reception), with a hint of romance, Where Do We Go Now? is pleasingly populated with "characters" and light farce that occasionally breaks out into a movie musical (a lyric to cherish: "This hashish comes straight from my heart"). Recommended.