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"Home base" for the San Francisco International Film Festival remains the AMC Kabuki 8, though other venues include the glorious Castro Theatre, the Palace of Fine Arts, and, stretching into other corners of the Bay Area, the invaluable Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Landmark's Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto. 79 narrative features, 35 documentary features, and 71 short films from 49 countries will unspool at the SFIFF, which runs April 21-May 5, 2005.
At a press conference held recently at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Executive Director Roxanne Messina Captor, Director of Programming Linda Blackaby, and Programming Associates Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong unveiled a typically stellar program of international cinema, including 14 world premieres, 22 North American premieres, and 8 U.S. premieres. The fest roars to life at the Castro on April 21, with Academy-Award-winning director Costa-Gavras's The Ax, a black comedy of downsizing; Ghiardhelli Square (and sponsor Sterling Vintner's Collection) will play host to a glitzy opening night party, attended by Costa-Gavras. The Closing Night selection on May 5 is The Dying Gaul, playwright Craig Lucas's directorial debut. Lucas, actors Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Sarsgaard will accompany the film (again at the Castro), before heading off to a hoppin' "Wrap Party" at Suede.
Between galas, it's business as usual: an unbeatable, crammed selection of high-quality film programs. This year's Peter J. Owens Award winner for Excellence in Acting is Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger, Off the Map), rounding off a 2005 acting "hat trick" with Sally Potter's Yes. At the Castro Theatre on April 29th, Jeff Bridges will present the award, Potter will screen clips and interview Allen on stage, then Yes will make its local premiere. Taylor Hackford (Ray) will collect the Film Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing on April 27 at the Castro, before a rare screening of Hackford's 1980 breakthrough The Idolmaker.
Red-hot screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) will take home the inaugural Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting. Following a Screenwriting Master Class on April 30 at the Kabuki, his directorial debut Crash will make its local debut. Allen, Hackford, and Haggis will also look suitably humble on April 28 at the Film Society Awards Night, a gala black-tie fundraiser held in the Ritz-Carlton Ballroom. Local hero Anita Monga, infamously fired without apparent cause from her position as programmer of the Castro Theatre, will receive the Mel Novikoff Award—in fact, Monga worked with Novikoff at the Castro in the 1980s ("the Award acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has increased the public's awareness and enjoyment of film"). After accepting the award, Monga will introduce her selection for the evening, Jacques Becker's Touchez Pas au Grisbi.
Among the 140+ guests expected to attend the festival: Benjamin Bratt, Josh Brolin, Michel Ciment, Courtney Cox, Daniel Craig,Dana Delany, Aranaud Desplechin, Kim Ki-duk, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, and Matthew Vaughn. On April 23 at the Kabuki, Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) will screen his new film Palindromes and then hold a seminar in "How to Write a Screenplay," in conversation with writer-director Noah Hawley (The Alibi, The Yes Man). Brad Bird will give this year's "State of the Cinema Address" (April 24 at the Kabuki), director Adam Curtis (Century of the Self) will accompany his 180-min. doc The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (May 1 at the Kabuki), and the Live Music for Film Series will include performances of original scores for Frank Borzage's 1928 Street Angel (American Music Club) and, on a double bill, Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera (Alloy Orchestra; Apr. 25).
Believe it or not, that description but scratches the surface. Besides the above, I'm personally looking forward to François Ozon's 5x2, Claire Denis' The Intruder, Ingmar Bergman's purported "last film" Saraband and two midnight movies involving gonzo Japanese auteur Takashi Miike: his feature Izo and his contribution to anthology film Three...Extremes. Documentary selections include Edgar G. Ulmer—The Man Off Screen, a documentary accounting of the forgotten contemporary of Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a history of the beleagured corporation; Werner Herzog's The White Diamond, about the Guyana expedition of an engineer of two-person blimps; and Thomas Riedelsheimer's Touch the Sound, about deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie and her collaboration with guitarist Fred Frith (who scored Riedelsheimer's Rivers and Tides).
To review a complete festival schedule, go to www.sffs.org.
3-Iron (screens 4/22 and 4/25 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Kim Ki-duk's happily unhinged drama comfortably occupies the middle ground between his baroque thriller The Isle and his meditative Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. Tae-Suk is a young drifter who has developed an ingenious, though risky, method of living for free in a succession of comfortable homes that aren't his. One evening, the home he occupies isn't empty. The battered woman to whom he wordlessly bonds becomes his life partner, but fate has other plans for the casually reckless couple. Kim moves his story from merely weird to bizarre. Is the story supernatural? Is it a dream? In any case, it's a uniquely cracked romance made in a refreshingly direct style that minimizes dialogue and maximizes mood. Recommended.
Almost Brothers (screens 4/25 at the PFA in Berkeley & 4/28 and 5/1 at the Kabuki in S.F.) This well-intentioned Brazilian film boasts a screenplay co-written by Paulo Lins (City of God), but director Lúcia Murat illuminates her chosen moments in history too dimly. The story unfolds in three timelines—1957, 1970, and 2004—as childhood friends Miguel and Jorge attempt to reconcile their shifting fates in the Brazilian criminal justice system. They share prison time at Ilha Grande, where political prisoners (represented by Miguel) and street hoods (represented by Jorge) were historically forced to deal with each other. The narrative stutters, seemingly randomly, through short scenes in different timelines, which makes the noble but fruitless story occasionally confusing and always lacking in narrative drive. Skip it.
Kings & Queen (screens 4/22 at the Kabuki in S.F. & 4/24 at the PFA in Berkeley) Arnaud Desplechin's domestic comedy-drama spins emotions like plates in a variety show. Desplechin's hyperactive intelligence considers two linked storylines. One concerns Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a widowed, divorced, engaged single mother whose latest crisis is her father's declining health. Her surviving ex-husband (Mathieu Amalric) inhabits the second storyline; the neurotic violinist temporarily lands himself in a mental institution, where he spars with a psychiatrist played by Catherine Deneuve. The two assuage each other in their time of need, but it's not at all clear that they can solve each other's problems. The oh-so-French blend of humor and pathos is an appropriately unsettling view of life as Desplechin knows it. Recommended.
Layer Cake (screens 4/26 and 4/30 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Matthew Vaughn spent years producing Guy Ritchie's crime-caper comedies, so one might expect more of the same from Vaughn's directorial debut. Happily, that's not the case with Layer Cake, an accomplished adaptation of J.J. Connolly's novel that capitalizes on another distinguished leading perfomance by Daniel Craig. Connolly wrote the screenplay, and his sharp narration effectively establishes Craig's character, a drug dealer who proves that discipline is not enough to stay out of trouble. Pleasingly plot-heavy, Layer Cake always pulls itself up by its bootsraps whenever its energy threatens to flag: a sudden influx of violence here, a zesty supporting turn by Michael Gambon there, and before you know it, you've got a respectable genre film with a touch of Danny Boyle-esque pizazz. Recomended.
November (screens 4/26 at the Kabuki in S.F., followed by party at Ruby Skye) The ZOOM! After Hours selection, another postmodern pastiche of Ambrose Bierce by way of David Lynch, finds Courtney Cox exorcising Friends by playing a woman who's cracking up after a shooting incident in a convenience store. Writer-director Greg Harrison (Groove) shot fast on digital; Nancy Schreiber won Sundance's "Excellence in Cinematography" Award for her occasionally jolting, mostly dim digital murk. I'm predisposed to hate any movie billed as "an homage to the mindbending thrillers of David Lynch"—maybe you'll be more charitable to November, which telegraphs its unsatisfying payoff for miles, has no fun getting there, but at least boasts a running time of 73 minutes, padded by a hilariously slow credit crawl. Skip it.
Yes (screens 4/29 at the Castro in S.F.) Mark my words: Yes will be on plenty of "Best of the Year" Lists come year's end, and undoubtedly a few "Worst of the Year" lists, as well. Few filmmakers could be consciously redolent of Moliere, Dylan Thomas, and James Joyce and pull it off, but apparently writer-director Sally Potter is first in that class. Yes employs mostly heroic couplets (rhymed iambic pentameter) to tell a love story bursting with contemporary socio-political import and timeless philosophical and religious contemplation. Joan Allen plays "She," a scientist who's convinced that life has more to offer than her loveless marriage (to Sam Neill's Anthony). Simon Abkarian plays "He," a Lebanese doctor turned London cook. Their electrifying romance demands that each question long-held cultural assumptions and overcome personal prejudices. Sensual and dizzyingly brilliant. A must-see.