What to watch

Pub date April 19, 2011
SectionFilm Features


Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S., 2010) There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Melanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. Thurs/21, 7 p.m., Castro. (Louis Peitzman)



The Good Life (Eva Mulvad, Denmark, 2010) Portraits of the formerly wealthy are often guilty of peddling secondhand nostalgia for some ancien regime while simultaneously stoking schadenfreude toward the now-deposed (just ask Vanity Fair). Eva Mulvad’s melancholy character study of 50-something Annemette Beckmann and her aged mother, Mette, avoids both traps even as her subjects — formerly wealthy Danish expats living on the dole in a cramped apartment in a coastal Portuguese town — offer few inroads for sympathy. Narcissistic and petulant, Annemette blames the loss of her family’s wealth on the 1974 nationalization of Portugal’s then-Communist government, and claims that her cosseted upbringing has made it hard to find a job (“Work doesn’t become me,” she gratingly protests at one point). Mette, who is more likeable, is a resigned realist whose sole comfort, aside from the pet dog, seems to be her knowledge that she is not long for this world. Comparisons to Grey Gardens (1975) are inevitable here, but the Beckmanns simply aren’t as interesting or possessed by as idiosyncratic a joie de vivre as the Beales, making The Good Life a tough slog. Fri/22, 3:45 p.m.; April 28, 6:45 p.m.; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Matt Sussman)

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2010) Do you remember a time you behaved badly (not horribly, but bad enough that you felt ashamed) but you didn’t really think about it until long after the fact, say, when getting drinks with an old friend? If you can’t, than the latest from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo will probably jog your memory. As with many of Hong’s films, Hahaha’s premise is similar to the above scenario: two 30-something buds get together and reminisce about their recent trips to the same seaside town. Shown in episodic flashbacks, we start to realize that the incidents and players in their separate accounts overlap into one story filled with terrible poetry, domineering mothers, stalker-ish behavior, and poorly made choices. Hong’s films are primers in how not to treat your fellow human beings (straight dudes are usually the culprits), so take notes. Fri/22, 9:15 p.m.; Mon/25, 9 p.m.; and Tues/26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France, 2009) Codirected with his son Nathan, this latest by veteran French director Claude Miller is an about-face from his acclaimed 2007 period epic A Secret. Viscerally up-to-the-moment in content and handheld-camera style, it’s a small story that builds toward an enormous punch. Thomas (played by Maxime Renard as a child, then Vincent Rottiers) is a lifelong malcontent whose troubles are rooted in his abandonment at age five by an irresponsible mother (Sophie Cattani). Neither the attentions of well-meaning adoptive parents or the influence of his better-adjusted younger brother can quell Thomas’ mix of furious resentment and curiosity toward his mere, whom he finally develops a relationship with as a young adult. As usual, Miller doesn’t “explain” his characters or let them explain themselves, yet everything feels emotionally true — right up to a narrative destination both that feels both shocking and inevitable. Fri/22, 6:45 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S., 2010) After three broke down road movies (1994’s River of Grass, 2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy), Kelly Reichardt’s new frontier story tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism. It’s 1845 on the choked plains of Oregon, miles from the fertile valley where a wagon train of three families is headed. They’ve hired the rogue guide Meek to show them the way, but he’s got them lost and low on water. When the group captures a Cayeuse Indian, Solomon proposes they keep him on as a compass; Meek thinks it better to hang him and be done with it. The periodic shots of the men deliberating are filmed from a distance — the earshot range of the three women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson) who set up camp each night. It’s through subtle moves like these that Meek’s Cutoff gives a vivid taste of being subject to fate and, worse still, the likes of Meek. Reichardt winnows away the close-ups, small talk, and music that provided the simple gifts of her earlier work, and the overall effect is suitably austere. Fri/22, 9 p.m., and Mon/25, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Max Goldberg)

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, U.S., 2010) Not gonna lie — the reason I wanted to review this one was because of the film still in the SFIFF catalog. Rotten-faced vampire with a stake through its neck? Yes, please! But while Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic road movie does offer plenty of gore, it’s more introspective than one might expect, following an orphaned teenage boy, Martin (Connor Paolo, Serena’s little bro on Gossip Girl), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Snake Plissken-ish Nick Damici), on their travels through a ravaged America. As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, vampires, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, including a nun played by Kelly McGillis), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn’t throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it’s beautifully shot and doesn’t hold back on the brutality. Larry Fessenden (director of 2006’s The Last Winter) produced and has a brief cameo as a helpful bartender. Fri/22, 11:30 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)



The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania, 2010) Andrei Ujica’s three-hour documentary uses decades of propagandic footage to let the late Romanian dictator — who was overthrown by popular revolt and executed in 1989 — hang himself with his own grandiose image-making. While the populace suffered (off-screen, you might want to bone up on the facts before seeing this ironical, commentary-free portrait), the “great leader” and his wife Elena were constantly seen holding state dances, playing volleyball, hunting bear, and vacationing hither and yon. (We even see them on the Universal Studios tour.) There’s no surprise in seeing them greeted with enormous pageantry in China; but it’s a little shocking to see this tyrant welcome Nixon (in the first-ever U.S. presidential visit to a Communist nation), lauded by Jimmy Cartner, and hobnobbing with Queen Elizabeth. This grotesque parade of self-glorifying public moments has a happy ending, however. Sat/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/24, 5:15 p.m., New People; May 1, 1:30 p.m., PFA. (Harvey)

Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany, 2010) It’s tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra’s Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who’s rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors’ faces, and he’s rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. Sat/23, 4 p.m., and April 28, 6 p.m., Kabuki. (Kimberly Chun)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010) One of the clichés often told about art is that it is supposed to speak to us. Polish director Lech Majewski’s gorgeous experiment in bringing Flemish Renaissance painter Peter Bruegel’s sprawling 1564 canvas The Procession to Calvary to life attempts to do just that. Majeswki both re-stages Bruegel’s painting — which draws parallels between its depiction of Christ en route to his crucifixion and the persecution of Flemish citizens by the Spanish inquisition’s militia — in stunning tableaux vivant that combine bluescreen technology and stage backdrops, and gives back stories to a dozen or so of its 500 figures. Periodically, Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) addresses the camera mid-sketch to dolefully explain the allegorical nature of his work, but these pedantic asides speak less forcefully than Majeswki’s beautifully lighted vignettes of the small joys and many hardships that comprised everyday life in the 16th century. Beguiling yet wholly absorbing, this portrait of a portrait is like nothing else at the festival. Sat/23, 12:30 p.m., SFMOMA, and April 27, 9 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

Mind the Gap Experimental film fans: come for the big names, but don’t miss out on the newcomers. Locals Jay Rosenblatt (melancholy found-footage bio The D Train), Kerry Laitala (psychedelic 3-D brain-dazzler Chromatastic), and Skye Thorstenson (mannequin-horror music video freak out Tourist Trap, featuring the acting and singing stylings of the Guardian’s Johnny Ray Huston) offer strong entries in an overall excellent program. International bigwigs Peter Tscherkassky (the 25-minute Coming Attractions, a layered study of airplanes, Hollywood, and Hollywood airplanes — not for the crash-phobic) and Jonathan Caouette (“Lynchian” has been used to describe the Chloë Sevigny-starring All Flowers In Time, though it contains a scary-faces contest that’d spook even Frank Booth) are also notable. New names for me were Zachary Drucker, whose Lost Lake introduces a transsexual, pervert-huntin’ vigilante for the ages, and my top pick: Kelly Sears’ Once it started it could not end otherwise, a deliciously sinister hidden-history lesson imagined via 1970s high-school yearbooks. Sat/23, 4:45 p.m., and May 1, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Troll Hunter (André Ovredal, Norway, 2010) Yes, The Troll Hunter riffs off The Blair Witch Project (1999) with both whimsy and, um, rabidity. Yes, you may gawk at its humongoid, anatomically correct, three-headed trolls, never to be mistaken for grotesquely cute rubber dolls, Orcs, or garden gnomes again. Yes, you may not believe, but you will find this lampoon of reality TV-style journalism, and an affectionate jab at Norway’s favorite mythical creature, very entertaining. Told that a series of strange attacks could be chalked up to marauding bears, three college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Tomas Alf Larsen, and Johanna Morck) strap on their gumshoes and choose instead to pursue a mysterious poacher Hans (Otto Jespersen) who repeatedly rebuffs their interview attempts. Little did the young folk realize that their late-night excursions following the hunter into the woods would lead at least one of them to rue his or her christening day. Ornamenting his yarn with beauty shots of majestic mountains, fjords, and waterfalls, Norwegian director-writer André Ovredal takes the viewer beyond horror-fantasy — handheld camera at the ready — and into a semi-goofy wilderness of dark comedy, populated by rock-eating, fart-blowing trolls and overshadowed by a Scandinavian government cover-up sorta-worthy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Sat/23, 11:30 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/25, 6:15 p.m., New People. (Chun)

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) The words “Rainer Werner Fassbinder” and “science fiction film” are enough to get certain film buffs salivating, but the Euro-trashy interior décor is almost reason enough to see this restored print of the New German Cinema master’s cyber thriller. Originally a two-part TV miniseries, World on a Wire is set in an alternate present (then 1973) in which everything seems to be made of concrete, mirror, Lucite, or orange plastic. When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what really happened, and in the process, stumbles upon a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Riffing off the understated cool of Godard’s Alphaville (1965) while beating 1999’s The Matrix to the punch by some 25 years, World on a Wire is a stylistically singular entry in Fassbinder’s prolific filmography. Sat/23, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki, and April 30, 2 p.m., PFA. (Sussman) SUN/24

A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 2010) Save your pocket poodles, please: Paris, as cities go, is most decidedly feline. From 1917’s silent serial Les Vampires to its uber-cool 1990s update Irma Vep, cat burglars and the Parisian skyline have gone together like café and au lait. Add actual cats and jazz to the mix for good measure (even Disney saw fit to set its jazzy 1970 Aristocats in the City of Light). At just over an hour long, the animated A Cat in Paris is an enjoyable little amuse-bouche that employs all the standards of the cats-in-Paris meme: Billie Holiday warbling on the soundtrack, a dashingly heroic antihero who scales the rooftops as if he studied parkour under Spider-Man, and the titular untamable black cat who serves as his partner in crime. Complete with a climatic Hitchcockian set piece on the rooftops of Notre Dame Cathedral, A Cat in Paris has a refreshingly angular and graphic, almost cubist, feel. Directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s work certainly doesn’t rank among that of countryman Sylvain Chomet (2010’s The Illusionist), but this family film is worth checking out if kitties up to no good in Purr-ree simply make you want to le squee. Sun/24, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki, and May 1, 12:30 p.m., New People. (Michelle Devereaux)



Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, U.S., 2010) The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. Mon/25, 7 p.m., and Tues/26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)



Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany, 2010) Chile’s Atacama Desert, the setting for Patricio Guzmán’s lyrically haunting and meditative documentary, is supposedly the driest place on earth. As a result, it’s also the most ideal place to study the stars. Here, in this most Mars-like of earthly landscapes, astronomers look to the heavens in an attempt to decode the origins of the universe. Guzmán superimposes images from the world’s most powerful telescopes — effluent, gaseous nebulas, clusters of constellations rendered in 3-D brilliance — over the night sky of Atacama for an even more otherworldly effect, but it’s the film’s terrestrial preoccupations that resonate most. For decades, a small, ever dwindling group of women have scoured the cracked clay of Atacama searching for loved ones who disappeared early in Augusto Pinochet’s regime. They take their tiny, toy-like spades and sift through the dirt, finding a partial jawbone here, an entire mummified corpse there. Guzmán’s attempt through voice-over to make these “architects of memory,” both astronomers and excavators alike, a metaphor for Chile’s reluctance to deal with its past atrocities is only marginally successful. Here, it’s the images that do all the talking — if “memory has a gravitational force,” their emotional weight is as inescapable as a black hole. Tues/26, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki, and April 28, 6:15 p.m., PFA. (Devereaux)

The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 2010) Fairytales are endemically Freudian; perhaps it has something to with their use of subconscious fantasy to mourn — and breathlessly anticipate — the looming loss of childhood. French provocateuse Catherine Breillat’s feminist re-imagining of The Sleeping Beauty carries her hyper-sexualized signature, but now she also has free reign to throw in bizarre and beastly metaphors for feminine and masculine desire in the form of boil-covered, dungeon-dwelling ogres, albino teenage princes, and icy-beautiful snow queens. The story follows Anastasia, a poor little aristocrat, who longs to be a boy (she calls herself “Sir Vladimir”). When her hand is pricked with a yew spindle (more of a phallic impalement, really), Anastasia falls into a 100-year adventurous slumber, eventually awakening as a sexually ripe 16-year-old. It all plays like an anchorless, Brothers Grimm version of Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando. And while it’s definitely not for the kiddies, it’s hard to believe that many adults would find its overt symbolism and plodding narrative any more than a sporadically entertaining exercise in preciousness. Your own dreams will undoubtedly be more interesting — perhaps you can catch a few zzz’s in a theater screening this movie. Tues/26, 6:15 p.m., and April 27, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Devereaux)

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org>.