La Mission (Peter Bratt, USA, 2009) A veteran S.F. vato turned responsible if still muy macho widower, father, and Muni driver, 46-year-old Che (Benjamin Bratt) isn’t the type for mushy displays of sentiment. But it’s clear his pride and joy is son Jess (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a straight-A high school grad bound for UCLA. That filial bond, however, sustains some serious damage when Che discovers Jes has a secret life with a boyfriend, in the Castro, just a few blocks away from their Mission walkup but might as well be light-years away as far as old-school dad is concerned. This Bratt family project (Benjamin’s brother Peter writes-directs, his wife Talisa Soto Bratt has a supporting role) has a bit of a predictable TV-movie feel, but its warm heart is very much in the right place, and the affectionate location shooting makes this an ideal SFIFF opening-nighter. (Dennis Harvey) 7 p.m., Castro.
It’s Not Me, I Swear! (Philippe Falardeau, Canada, 2008) Ten-year-old Leon Dore (Antoine L’Écuyer) is a Harold without a Maude, forever staging near-fatal "deadly accidents" that by now no one blinks twice at whether they’re expressions of warped humor, cries for attention, or actual (yet invariably failed) suicide attempts). Mom and dad are forever at each others’ throats, while their older son pines for a domestic normalcy that ain’t happening anytime soon. One day mom simply announces she’s splitting for Greece to "start a new life," pointedly without husband and children. This event rachets Leon’s misbehaviors which also encompass theft and vandalism up a few notches. Set in kitschily-realized late 1960s Quebec suburbia, director Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation of two linked novels by Bruno Hebert is a very deft mix of family dysfunction, preadolescent maladjustment (or maybe budding sociopathy), and anarchic comedy. (Harvey) 5:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also Sat/25, 2:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Tues/28, 1 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, Canada/France, 2008) When orphaned teenager Simon (Devon Bostick) writes a paper for French class in which he imagines himself as the son of real-life terrorists, his teacher (Arsinée Khanjian) tacitly encourages its being taken for fact. The resulting firestorm (largely taking place on the Web) raises questions about the boy’s actual parents, free speech, religio-political martyrdom, and so forth. This is the first Atom Egoyan feature based on his own original story as opposed to literary sources or historical incidents in 15 interim years. While his fame has certainly risen in the interim, some of us haven’t liked anything so well since that last one, 1994’s Exotica. Adoration recalls such early efforts in the cool intellectual gamesmanship with which characters and technologies are manipulated toward a hidden truth. Yet provocative as it is, there’s something overly elaborate and ultimately dissatisfying about his gambits that makes Adoration less than the sum of its parts. (Harvey) 6:15 p.m, Sundance Kabuki. Also Mon/27, 6:30 p.m., PFA.
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan/Switzerland/Germany/Russia/Poland, 2008) Possible new genre alert: the docu-comedy. Documenatarian Dvortsevoy turns his camera on his native Kazakhstan, and nothing depicted suggests anything Borat might’ve broadcast. The country’s stark, southern steppes form the backdrop for a family of nomads, including married-with-children Samal and Ondas, and Samal’s brother Asa, who returns from his Russian naval service longing for his own flock of sheep. Alas, he can’t get a flock until he lands a wife and the only local prospect, Tulpan, rejects him on the basis of his "big ears" (and the small fact that she would like to move out of the sticks, into the city, and maybe even attend college). Traditional ways bump up against more ambitious ones (as when Asa dreams of a satellite dish), just as comedic moments trade screen time with grittier scenarios (including actual footage of a sheep giving birth). The end result is an intimate and somehow totally relatable look at a fascinatingly foreign world. (Cheryl Eddy) 6:15 p.m., PFA. Also Mon/27, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; April 30, 4:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, England, 2009) A typically fumbling remark by U.K. Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) ignites a media firestorm, as it seems to suggest war is imminent even as both Brit and U.S. governments are downplaying the likelihood of the Iraq invasion they’re simultaneously preparing for. Suddenly cast as an important arbiter of global affairs a role he’s perhaps less suited for than playing the Easter Bunny Simon becomes one chess-piece in a cutthroat game whose participants on both sides of the Atlantic include his own subordinates, the prime minister’s rageaholic communications chief, major Pentagon and State Department honchos, crazy constituents, and more. This frenetic comedy of behind-the-scenes backstabbing and its direct influence on the highest-level diplomatic and military policies is scabrously funny in the best tradition of English television, which is (naturally) just where its creators hei from. (Harvey) 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 2, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
California Company Town (Lee Anne Schmitt, USA, 2008) This land isn’t your land, or my land, and it wasn’t made for you and me such is the insightful and incite-full impression one gets from California Company Town. Schmitt’s beautifully photographed, concisely narrated, and ominously structured look at the Golden State and the state of capitalism is labor of love, shot between 2003 and 2008; it’s a provocative piece of American history. On a semi-buried level, it’s also an extraordinary act of personal filmmaking that subverts various stereotypes of first-person storytelling by women while simultaneously learning from and breaking away from some esteemed directors of the essay film. (Johnny Ray Huston) 8:35 p.m., PFA. Also May 2, 6:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; May 4, 3:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Rudo y Cursi (Carlos Cuarón, Mexico, 2008) A who’s-who of Mexican cinema giants have their cleats in soccer yarn Rudo y Cursi: stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and producers Alfonso Cuarón (whose brother, Carlos, wrote and directed), Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. But while Rudo is entertaining, it’s surprisingly lightweight considering the talent involved. Bernal and Luna play Tato and Beto, rural half-brothers discovered by a jovially crooked soccer scout (Guillermo Francella) who gets them gigs playing on Mexico City teams. But athletic achievement seems barely a concern. Of far more importance are Tato’s crooning dreams and high-profile romance with a vapid TV star, and Beto’s left-behind wife and kids not to mention his raging gambling addiction. Though the drama boils down to one final game (of course), Rudo is really about the bonds and brawls between brothers, not sports teams. Goal? (Eddy) 6:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 1, 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
D Tour (Jim Granato, USA, 2008) There’s been many a band-on-the-brink doc about groups torn apart by substance abuse, or creative differences, or just plain nuttiness (see: 2004’s DiG! and Some Kind of Monster, and any number of Behind the Music eps). In D Tour, local indie popsters Rogue Wave face, and are drawn together by, an entirely different brand of crisis: drummer Pat Spurgeon’s urgent need for a kidney transplant. Director Granato is given full access to subjects who are very open about their feelings (and, in Spurgeon’s case, unpleasant medical procedures). The result is a music- and emotion-filled journey that’ll no doubt inspire many to check off the "organ donor" box on their driver’s licenses. A sadly ironic, late-act twist involving a different band member will come as no surprise to Rogue Wave followers, but D Tour incorporates the tragedy into its storyline without ever exploiting it. (Eddy) 9 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 4, 3:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; May 7, 5:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (David Russo, USA, 2009) Animator Russo’s first feature is a (mostly) live-action whimsy about rudderless Dory (Marshall Allman from Prison Break) who gets fired from his white-collar job and lands in the much scruffier employ of Spiffy Jiffy Janitorial Services. Its punky artist-type staff clean a high-rise’s offices, including one for a test-marketing trying out "self-warming cookies." When our protagonists develop an addictive liking for these treats, strange things begin to occur like hallucinations and, eventually, male pregnancies of mystery critters. Depending on mood, this arch quirkfest with an ’80s feel (think of all the similar, mildly surreal indie comedies that rode 1984 release Repo Man‘s coattails) may strike you as delightful or just plain irritating. (Harvey) 11 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 6, 3:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Tyson (James Toback, USA, 2008) Director Toback is picking up this year’s Kanbar Award for "excellence in screenwriting," but his latest film is a doc scripted largely in the mind of its subject. To call Mike Tyson a polarizing figure is an understatement (and raises the question: Does anyone really like him except Toback, whom he’s known for two decades?). This film narrated by Tyson, the sole interviewee won’t endear him to a public that’s seen him besmirch his glorious boxing-ring talents with an array of bad behavior, from a rape charge (here, Tyson calls his accuser a "wretched swine of a woman") to the chomping of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Though he chokes up on occasion and admits at one point that he starting taking fights just for the money, he’s still about as unsympathetic as humanly possible. Fun fact: a friend convinced him to go tribal with the face tattoo. Tyson himself wanted hearts. (Eddy) 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Moon (Duncan Jones, England, 2008) The Bay Area’s own Sam Rockwell has quietly racked up a slew of memorable performances in variable films including 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and 2008’s Choke so the fact that he’s pretty much the whole show in this British sci-fi tale is reason enough to see it. A one-man space saga à la Silent Running (1972), it has him as Sam Bell, the lone non-mechanical worker (Kevin Spacey voices his principal robot assistant) on a lunar mining station in the not-too-distant future. He’s just about to finish his long, lonely contracted three-year stint and return home to a desperately missed family when strange things begin to occur. First there are hallucinations, then physical disabilities, then finally the impossible there’s company aboard the station. Debuting feature director Duncan Jones orchestrates atmosphere and intrigue, though despite one major game-changing twist his original story seems a little thin in the long run. Nevertheless, Rockwell commands attention throughout as a character whose exhaustion, disorientation, and eventual panic feel alarmingly vivid. (Harvey) 9 p.m., Castro.
The Reckoning (Pamela Yates, USA/Uganda/Congo/Colombia/Netherlands, 2008) Yates’ latest documentary chronicles the long-delayed launch and bumpy first years of the International Criminal Court, a Hague-based body founded to prosecute (primarily) war crimes that member nations were unwilling or unable to do so themselves. Its authority is not yet recognized by several nations including the Big Three of U.S.A., Russia, and China while prosecutions of various military or political leaders who ordered crimes against civilians are often hampered by political minefields. Nonetheless, the still-struggling court is a beacon of hope for peace and justice around the globe. Yates lays out its work so far as an engrossing series of detective stories investigating instances of mass murder, rape, plunder, etc. in Uganda, the Congo, Darfur, and Colombia. (Harvey) 5:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 5, 6 p.m., PFA; May 6, 6:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008) It’s no joy for Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) to bring his wife and stepson up from Tokyo on an annual visit to his elderly parents. The occasion is to commemorate the passing of an older brother who’s been dead for decades but is still held up as the yardstick by which Ryo will always fall short. Mom (Kiki Kirin) is well intentioned enough, if often insensitively blunt-spoken. But retired dad (Yoshio Harada) is an imperious grump who resents Ryo’s not following him into medical practice, disapproves of his marrying a widow, spurns her son from that prior union as less than a "real" grandchild, and is generally kind of a dick. This latest from Hirokazu Kore-eda (2004’s Nobody Knows, 1998’s After Life) is a quiet seriocomedy with lots of discomfiting moments. Yet it’s suffused with enough humor, warmth and surprising joy to easily qualify as one of SFIFF’s best 2009 picks. (Harvey)
8:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. Also May 5, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.