SFIFF: Highway 51

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France/Italy, 2007) Catherine Breillat steps back from one of her bluntest provocations — 2006’s Anatomy of Hell — to deliver this barbed, intelligent adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel. Asia Argento is heroic as the titular courtesan, a seething, powerful woman working outside bourgeoisie bounds. On the eve of his marriage to a suitably chaste maiden, Mick Jagger–lipped Ryno de Maginy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) narrates his decades-long affair with the magnetic mistress — telling the tale to his fiancée’s grandmother, who is rapt. An intriguing cocktail of classical framing and modern malaise, The Last Mistress is Breillat’s best work in years — not least of all because of her clear affection for the material. (Max Goldberg)

7 p.m., Castro.


Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2007) Alexandra‘s 70-something title figure (Galina Vishnevskaya) takes the laborious journey to Chechnya, where the grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) she hasn’t seen in seven years is stationed at a large army base. This latest by Russian master Sokurov isn’t exactly narrative-driven, but it’s one of his least abstract, most emotionally direct works. In her first film role, opera veteran Vishnevskaya doesn’t need to sing to etch a character whose long-suffering indomitableness is Mother Courage as Mother Russia. (Dennis Harvey)

7 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, noon, Kabuki; May 4, 4:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Black Belt (Shunichi Nagasaki, Japan, 2007) Hai karate! Ably armed with authentic martial arts aces in lead roles, auteur Nagasaki transforms his masterful piece of genre filmmaking into a parable, set on the eve of World War II, about the use of power and the wisdom of passive resistance. Black Belt trounces typical CG kung fu: that the actors are karate masters gives the film a texture of authenticity unseen since the days of Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, lending weight to thoughts and deeds. (Kimberly Chun)

8:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki

Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, England, 2007) Adapted from Monica Ali’s 2003 novel, Brick Lane is a clichéd, romantic, finding-one’s-home story. Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) submits herself to the unexciting life of pre-arranged marriage until she meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), who sweeps her off her feet. One of the most aggravating things about the film is that Nazneen finds the power to take charge of her life through her affair alone. Apparently her daughter’s constant plea for Nazneen to start verbalizing her will was of secondary importance. (Maria Komodore)

7:15 p.m., Kabuki.

The Golem with Black Francis (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, Germany, 1920) An original score composed and played live by the Pixies’ leader is a mighty enticement, but even without it this classic 1920 German silent would be worth seeing. Drawn from medieval Jewish folklore, it tells of a rabbi’s creation of a clay man to protect the ethnic ghetto from a Christian emperor’s heavy hand. Codirected by Wegener, one of the masters of cinematic German expressionism (who also plays the golem), it’s an impressive, strikingly designed mix of horror, history, and political commentary. (Harvey)

9:30 p.m., Castro.

Just Like Home (Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2007) Dogme95 filmmaker Scherfig hones her flair for bittersweet comedy with this goofily enjoyable ensemble piece about a misfit small town that falls into chaos. Much of the film’s story is seen through the eyes of a newcomer who has escaped from a bizarre religious cult; in accordance, Scherfig records the earnest bumbling of town folk through a unique lens, sometimes smeared with streaks of overexposed or double-exposed shapes and colors. The result is only as deep as a standard-issue Hollywood romantic comedy, but it’s deftly handled and slyly endearing. (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

6:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sat/26, 1 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/27, 4 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki

Lady Jane (Robert Guédiguian, France, 2007) Lean and mean as a killer B-movie, Lady Jane shows that the French noir still possesses a powerful measure of chilly fire. Its namesake, played by the 50-ish, formidable, and fierce Ariane Ascaride, perfectly embodies the genre. Roused from bourgeois slumber when her son is suddenly snatched, Lady Jane reconnects with two old partners in crime to raise a ransom. Director Guédiguian is overly fond of his flashbacks but redeems himself with the care he puts into imagery that avoids Bogart-by-way-of-Belmondo clichés. (Chun)

9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/ 27, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark/Norway, 2007) There is one thing wrong with Swede Roy Andersson’s movies: there aren’t enough of them. His fourth feature in 30 years is another almost indescribable gizmo that strings together absurdist tableaux to increasingly hilarious and elaborate effect. From an incongruous Louisiana brass band to unhappy barflies forever facing last call, the characters here are comic Scandinavian-miserabilist pawns in a cosmic joke told largely through music — and painted a fugly shade of lime green. Bizarre and delightful. (Harvey)

6:15 p.m., Castro. Also Sun/27, 8:30 p.m., PFA; Tues/29, 7 p.m., Kabuki


Fados (Carlos Saura, Portugal/Spain, 2007) Attempting to do for the Portuguese torch song what he once did for Spain’s gypsy blues with Flamenco (1995), Saura soars and stumbles with Fados, presenting wonderful performances and a few unfortunately dated modern-dance treatments. Chico Buarque, Mariza, Lila Downs, and Césaria Évora lend their varied styles and impassioned voices to the form. But one wishes Saura would have stepped aside further for the effervescent, soulful lilt of Caetano Veloso; the plush, liquid tones of Lura; the arch, curled-lip warble of Ana Sofia Varela; and old world narrative grace of Carlos do Carmo. (Chun)

2:45 p.m., Castro. Also Mon/28, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki

Ice People (Anne Aghion, USA/France, 2007) The movies have long made the Antarctic the terrain of terrifying monsters and cute creatures, but the beings discovered by Anne Aghion in this documentary bare fatigue, not fangs, and they are far more prickly than cuddly. Aghion’s portrait of the inhabitants of the McMurdow Research Station spends most of its time with a satellite group of four geologists looking for 20-million-year-old leaf fossils. There’s more depth in the fantastic landscapes, which Aghion lenses far more flatteringly than she does her human subjects. (Sussman)

6:45 p.m., Kabuki. Mon/28, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki

Mataharis (Icíar Bollaín, Spain, 2007) Charlie’s Angels this ain’t: these investigators and would-be Mata Haris of an all-female Madrid detective agency have the unwashed hair, sensible shoes, and bad marriages of everyday wage slaves. Actress-director Bollaín’s skillful, empathetic knack for capturing the grubby, low-light details of working women’s lives glimmers through the pale haze of this promising film. But she falters with the application of narrative-flattening sentiment, predictably reassuring story arcs, and the occasional cheesy slo-mo effect. (Chun)

4 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/28, 7:15 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 9 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 1:15 p.m., Clay

Walt & El Grupo (Theodore Thomas, USA, 2007) In 1941, Walt Disney and a band of animators, writers, and other artists — which came to be known as El Grupo — journeyed to South America on a goodwill tour. This documentary, codirected by the son of one voyager, gathers wonderful photos, home movies, and a dazzling collection of drawings and cartoon clips to re-create the trip. The trouble is that there’s no real drama. The cumulative view is as sharply Eurocentric as Disney’s was when he went on to make cartoons such as 1942’s Saludos Amigos. (Anderson)
1:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/28, 6 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki


Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowksi, Australia, 2007) Norma Khouri made headlines and toured the talk show and lecture circuit as a crusading heroine when her 2003 international bestseller Forbidden Love highlighted the phenomenon of honor killings in pockets of the Muslim world. Trouble was, her heartrending story turned out to be a fabrication. As filmmaker Anna Broinowski grows increasingly exasperated with her subject’s fibbing and evasiveness, this documentary develops from an exposé into a portrait of a serial con artist one would be quite happy to see writing her next book from behind bars. (Harvey)

1:30 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 6:30 p.m., Clay; May 4, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki

Picking Up the Pieces (various, 2007) The most intriguing piece in this shorts program about things lost and found is Death Valley Superstar, Michael Yaroshevsky’s half-hour documentary focusing on Marc Frechette, who was picked off the street to star in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 Zabriskie Point. Taking his role as a student revolutionary into real life, he subsequently tried robbing a bank, was arrested, and died in prison under suspicious circumstances. Also excellent is Radu Jude’s 25-minute Romanian drama Alexandra and John Magary’s The Second Line, a narrative revolving around a FEMA worker in post-Katrina New Orleans. (Harvey)

11:45 a.m., Kabuki. Also April 30, noon, Kabuki.

A Stray Girlfriend (Ana Katz, Argentina, 2007) Writer-director-actress Katz maps out post-breakup transience with a wandering handheld camera and oblique dialog. As her titular character explores a rural township on Argentina’s coast, each scene teeters between bewilderment and menace. Lynne Ramsay covered similar terrain in her minor masterpiece Morvern Callar (2002), though with a dream-inducing soundtrack and enigmatic ellipticism far beyond Katz’s more vanilla approach. (Goldberg)

9:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 1, 7:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 6:15 p.m., PFA


Cachao: Uno Más (Dikayl Rimmasch, USA, 2008) Actor, would-be bongo player, and Cuban music fanatic Andy Garcia does right by his idol, the late Cuban musical great Israel "Cachao" Lopez, in this passionate tribute sprinkled with SF sights and centered around a Bimbo’s 365 Club concert. The show was apparently a hot one — it also showcased Bay Area Latin music scholar John Santos, timbalero Orestes Vilato, and vocalist Lazaro Galarraga — and director Rimmasch does it justice by using the performance as a narrative framework for a history that parallels that of contemporary Cuban music. (Chun)

6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 2, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki.


Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, USA, 2008) After profiling Robert McNamara in 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris jumps down the chain-of-command to summon US soldiers punished for the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib. Ever the showman, he cuts from burnished interviews and photos to reenactments and slow-motion rumbles — we "see" Saddam’s egg frying, giant prison ants, and an exploding helicopter. Such obsessive visualizations seem misplaced and morally confused. The Abu Ghraib story is, among other things, about the unstable, delicate nature of photographic representation. Yet Morris can’t resist auteur-stamped fireworks — how else to explain the typically nutty (and utterly incongruous) Danny Elfman score? (Goldberg)

Part of "Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award: An Evening With Errol Morris," 7:30 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide