Monday, April 16, 2012

SFIFF55—14 Capsule Reviews by Michael Hawley

Only a few days left until the longest running film festival in the Americas launches its much anticipated 55th edition. Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen starts it all off on Thursday, April 19 and over the next two weeks the San Francisco International Film Festival will present 174 films (105 of them features), as well as honor such cinema luminaries as (director) Kenneth Branagh, actress Judy Davis and documentarian Barbara Kopple. In my fest coverage thus far, I've spotlighted the special programs and awards that were announced early on, then offered up a two-part overview of the complete line-up (Europe and everywhere else in the world). Now here are 14 capsule reviews of selections I've had the chance to preview (all seen via DVD screener, with the exception of Where Do We Go Now?).

Guilty (France / Belgium, dir. Vincent Garenq)—Based upon "the greatest French legal scandal in living memory," this intensely harrowing film recounts the living nightmare of Alain Marécaux, a bailiff wrongly accused of pedophilia nearly a decade ago. After being dragged from his home in the middle of the night, he spent three years in prison awaiting trial, during which time his family and business were destroyed (there were also several suicide attempts and a hunger strike). TV director Garenq conveys this ordeal with unsparing, exacting detail, and is especially skillful at portraying Marécaux's acute sense of isolation. Enough can't be said for the riveting lead performance by Philippe Torreton, an actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar (he makes another SFIFF55 appearance in Rebellion). More than any other film I've previewed, this one has really stuck in my gut.

Golden Slumbers (Cambodia/France, dir. Davy Chou)—Between 1960 and 1975, Cambodia produced nearly 400 movies, in a Golden Era that ended with the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. All that survives today are a handful of clips, love songs from soundtracks, some memorabilia and the recollections of those few who survived the genocide. That anyone could assemble such a haunting and lyrical tribute from such scant resources is a small miracle. Particularly enchanting are interviews in which people wistfully recall film plots, most of which seem to involve ghosts, genies and demons. One ardent fan reveals that—while he's forgotten the faces of family members—he can effortlessly conjure up precise images of his favorite stars. We visit karaoke bars where the music of the era lives on, and a former 1,000-seat Phnom Penh cinema, which now shelters 116 households. Golden Slumbers begins with the camera traveling backwards along a dusty road at dusk, while voiceovers reminisce. It ends with a montage of the era's few surviving film fragments, tantalizingly withheld from our view until now and projected in a manner that's sheer poetry.

Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)—An upscale residential street in Recife serves as a microcosm of Brazilian class relations in this extremely well-crafted narrative feature debut. In nearly every intricately conceived scene, well-to-do residents interact with maids, security guards and deliverymen with politesse, while the film's sound design hints at an underlying ominousness. When that moment of denouement finally arrives, it's almost beside the point given the richness of all that's rendered up to that point. Neighboring Sounds also features my favorite fictional character of the festival—a weed-smoking housewife who's obsessed with a neighbor's barking dog and has a special relationship with her household appliances. This should be a strong contender for SFIFF55's New Directors Award.

Smuggler's Songs (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)—Louis Mandrin is popularly considered the Robin Hood of France, a mid-18th century brigand who foiled the king's tax collectors up until his martyrdom in 1755. Smuggler's Songs is a thoroughly engaging history lesson about the clandestine band of followers who built upon his legacy. It's a radical departure for director Ameur-Zaïmeche, whose first three features all dealt with contemporary French-Arab immigration issues. He injects his first period piece with a rascally charm, some fine period detail and a charismatic supporting cast (and he also stars as the group's ringleader, Bélissard). Actor / director Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget) is especially memorable as the Marquis who betrays his class and lends emphatic support to the cause of les Mandrins. A movie to inspire the 99 percent.

The Day He Arrives (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)—In this, Hong's 12th musing on thorny male / female relations amongst his country's creative class, a lapsed film director visits Seoul for several days of bumming around with friends, colleagues and exes. Like last year's Hahaha, the tone is pleasingly less contentious than in previous Hong outings and his ubiquitous fracturing of the narrative, once revealed, raises a smile rather than a roll of the eyes. What's new this time around is crisp, B&W cinematography that's wholly suited to the film's wintry, urban backdrop. Droll, disarming and the perfect length at 78 minutes.

¡Vivan las Antípodas! (Germany / Netherlands / Argentina / Chile dir. Victor Kossakovsky)—Antipodes are any two diametrically opposed points of land on the earth's surface and are rarer than one might think, given that 70 percent of our planet is covered by water. This visually stunning documentary contemplates four pairs of these antipodes without ever really making a point beyond the obvious ones of contrast and juxtaposition. Director Kossakovsky's success at conveying a sense of people and place ranges from the negligible (a barely seen Miraflores, Spain, whose antipode is Castle Point, New Zealand) to the sublime (a remote homestead in Entre Rios, Argentina, where two middle-aged brothers live a solitary existence maintaining a small bridge—their antipode is Shanghai, China). The film shines brightest in its breathtakingly creative transitional sequences, which should register impressively on a big screen (the fest is scheduled to show this in 35mm).

The Exchange (Israel/Germany, dir. Eran Kolirin)—A young, married physics professor breaks his well-established routine one day, setting off an existential crisis in which he becomes emotionally detached from the everyday. His newfound worldview manifests itself in ways ordinary (playing hooky from work and ignoring his wife's phone calls) and unordinary (exposing his genitals in his apartment building lobby and impulsively tossing a stapler out his open office window). This is a weird and oddly compelling little film that I can't pretend to have fully understood. It was certainly a bold way for director Kolirin to follow-up his 2007 arthouse charmer, The Band's Visit.

The Double Steps (Spain / Switzerland, dir. Isaki Lacuesta)—This fever dream of a movie was the surprise winner of the 2011 San Sebastián Film Festival's top prize and is constructed around three shifting, interrelated narratives: the works of contemporary artist Miquel Barceló, the legend of French writer / painter François Augiéras' hidden Saharan military bunker of painted frescoes, and the fantastical wanderings of a young African man who serves as some kind of Augiéras alter-ego. But phooey on all that. Best to just relax and take in the film's sensory pleasures—a funky desert dance party, the mud architecture of Mali's Dogon people, a nocturnal visit to an albino village, exotic animals and wandering bandits, all set to a Spaghetti Western-inspired score.

The Orator (New Zealand / Samoa, dir. Tusi Tamasese)—In a Samoan village, a dwarf with legitimate claims to chiefdom lives an unhappy life of ridicule with his wife, who was banished from her own village at a young age, and his pregnant step-daughter. When his wife dies, a conflict arises over the proper arrangements for her burial. It takes almost 90 patience-testing minutes for the film to reach this dramatic juncture, during which time we're unhurriedly exposed to the customs, rituals and pacing of Samoan village life (all lushly photographed). I confess that I struggled to stay awake. But the film utterly redeems itself in the profoundly moving final act, when our protagonist summons the courage to do the right thing. This is the first feature film ever made in the Samoan language, and it was New Zealand's recent submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®.

It's the Earth Not the Moon (Portugal, dir. Gonçalo Tocha)—Corvo is a remote volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic with 450 inhabitants, one town and one road. In the opening moments of this epic documentary, the filmmakers vow to literally film everyone and everything on the island. We watch craftspeople at work, witness pig slaughters and baptisms, visit the island dump and hear bad karaoke at a strobe-lit café. The inhabitants all come off as genial—not an outsized personality amongst them—and there's some nice photography, particularly of moody seas and skies. It's a not uninteresting portrait of a uniquely isolated place with a long history, but nothing surprising or revelatory is ever arrived at. The charm of the ordinary almost seems to be the point, but at 183 minutes (the longest film of the festival), it's a journey not everyone will consider time well spent.

OK, Enough, Goodbye (Lebanon / United Arab Emirates, dir. Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia)—In this slow-moving deadpan comedy of sorts, an elderly mother walks out on her peevish live-at-home son and forces him to get a life apart from insulting customers at his down-on-its-heels pastry shop. This entails engaging the services of a prostitute and a recalcitrant Ethiopian maid with whom he can't communicate. As is often the case with deadpan, your mileage may vary. Of greater interest are the intermittent injections of melancholic travelogue, which portray the film's locale, Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli, as a place that has seen better days (much like the film's protagonist).

Unfair World (Greece / Germany, dir. Filippos Tsitos)—A hangdog-faced police interrogator sinks into a morale morass after committing murder in this dour tale of perceived injustice in our modern world. Director Tsitos, who won the director's prize at San Sebastián, is clearly emulating Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki with deliberate pacing, absurdist conceits and monotonal acting. There's even a rock and roll scene. But this is Kaurismäki with all the life and soul sucked out. Providing significant diversion to all this agonizing austerity are some truly inspirational widescreen compositions and choreographed camerawork.

Bitter Seeds (USA, dir. Micha X. Peled)—Doc director Peled (China Blue, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town) completes his Globalization Trilogy with this sobering look at why a quarter-million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years. The blame rests squarely on Monsanto Corporation and their genetically modified cotton seeds, which must be repurchased every year and incur multiple hidden costs. Farmers turn to bank loans or illegal moneylenders and are driven to suicide when a bad crop year results in confiscation of their land. The stakes are higher for families with daughters, whose marriages require huge dowry sums. Peled's film does a decent job of explaining these issues, albeit in a repetitive, simple-minded way. A self conscious and stagey narrative thread involving a village girl studying to be a journalist is as distracting as it is effective. Artless and uncinematic, this generic, issue-driven documentary is mostly of interest for the information imparted.

Where Do We Go Now? (France / Lebanon / Italy / Egypt, dir. Nadine Labaki)—Muslim and Christian village women unite to manipulate their menfolk away from religious violence in Nadine Labaki's follow-up to 2007's popular Lebanese rom-com Caramel. While this premise is indeed admirable, it's executed with the broadest possible strokes, even for a story which is clearly intended as fable-esque. The absurd lengths to which these women go—hiring a gaggle of Ukrainian prostitutes and getting the men zonked on hashish baked goods—is so far outside any conceivable reality it renders the director's message meaningless. Other problems include a tone that lurches from mawkish melodrama to chirpy musical comedy and a score which telegraphs every emotion. Don't even get me started on the Virgin Mary statue that cries tears of blood.

Cross-published on film-415.

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