Lynn Rapoport

A few quick hits from the SF International Film Festival as it comes to a close


Sexual jealousy, filial betrayal, and bloodshed amid a civilization’s ruins. The SF International Film Festival began on these cheerful notes, with Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst tensely keeping company in opening-night film The Two Faces of January, Hossein Amini’s adaptation of the 1964 Patricia Highsmith novel. Mortensen plays Chester MacFarland, a New York con artist who, having bilked investors out of large wads of cash back in the States, is on the lam in Greece with his pretty young wife, Colette (Dunst).

When they catch the eye of Rydal (Isaac), a fellow American who’s idling in Athens — leading impressionable female tourists around the Acropolis and engaging in petty acts of grift — he becomes entangled in their affairs through a volatile mix of chance and attraction. The three become uneasy travel companions, as Rydal helps them evade Chester’s enemies and the local authorities. The sexual tension between Colette and Rydal runs along a foreseeable track, their shared youthful resilience a relentless rebuke to Chester, as he grimly knocks back whiskeys and fails to keep pace. But as Amini — a first-time feature director whose screenplay credits include Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive, and The Wings of the Dove — pointed out during the post-film Q&A, the relationship between Rydal and Chester proves much more complicated and fluid, shifting repeatedly, unpredictably, from con and mark (and mark and con) to sexual competitors to unwilling collaborators to quasi–father and son. The suspense heightens and the drama deepens as the characters struggle to keep their emotional footing and save their skins.

There’s no saving Mia Wasikowska’s skin — scarlet and blistering under a punishing desert sun — in John Curran’s Tracks, another adaptation, whose source material is the 1980 memoir of a young woman named Robyn Davidson, Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback (and the 1978 National Geographic article that preceded it). In the film, Robyn’s single-minded aim is to walk, for six or seven months, across nearly 2,000 miles of desert from Alice Springs in central Australia to the Indian Ocean, with, for company, a team of four feral camels (Australia apparently has the world’s largest population of them), which she would tame and train and use as pack animals, and her black lab Diggity. There’s some Into the Wild here, and some All Is Lost as well — in Robyn’s driving impulse toward deep isolation, her almost frantic need to remove herself from the cacophony of human transaction and commune with her animals in the empty desert, as well as in the film’s steady focus on logistics.

Nearly everyone — with the loopy exception of Adam Driver as Rick Smolan, an admiring freelance photographer who periodically joins her on the trail, at the behest of National Geographic — Robyn encounters at the film’s outset thinks she’s nuts, and doomed, and the viewer is likely sympathetic to this viewpoint. Robyn, radiating an unyielding idealism and a white-knuckled ethic of self-reliance, can seem naïve and unreasonable, and doesn’t much trouble to explain herself. The camera, meanwhile, follows in her tracks without judgment, accepting her decision and watching, solicitously, to see who she is out there and how she will make her way.

Three other films that left a mark: James Ward Byrkit’s twisty Coherence is a sci-fi thriller in which the possible influences of a comet passing overhead disrupt the urbane table talk and relationship tensions among four couples at a dinner party. François Ozon’s latest film, Young & Beautiful (now in theaters after its fest debut) takes a 17-year-old girl’s summer-vacation sexual discoveries as a jumping-off point for an uneasy exploration of a teenager’s decision to engage in prostitution. Even more than Tracks’ protagonist, the young Isabelle (Marine Vacth), and the film itself, is tight-lipped about her motivations, leaving us to wonder and worry — and scan her household (voyeuristic little brother, possibly philandering mother, oddly laid-back stepfather) for clues, an activity that Ozon, through the structure of the film, both encourages and critiques. And fellow French director Sophie Fillières gives us scenes from a marriage in decline in her sometimes absurd yet poignant If You Don’t, I Will, wherein Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) and Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos) struggle to navigate the glitches — physical, verbal, emotional — that have overtaken their every interaction.

It’s not that the relationships in The Skeleton Twins are less riddled with dysfunction, but at least the film, starring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Luke Wilson, gives us permission to laugh out loud amid the psychic wreckage. Wiig plays the melancholy, quietly floundering Maggie, one half of a long-estranged pair of twins, who is brought back into the life of her brother, Milo (Hader), under dire circumstances. When he comes to live with Maggie and her husband, oblivious sweetheart and nature lover Lance (Wilson), the two siblings are placed in uncomfortable proximity to a history of loss and upheaval they’ve both worked hard not to reexamine.

This sounds like the difficult, even dismal material of familial drama, and there are moments of pathos here, as well as sweetness. But director Craig Johnson’s script, cowritten with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), gives Hader and Wiig — who showed up with Johnson to the fest’s first screening to answer a few questions in between stand-up riffing off of the audience — plenty of room to generate hilarity (see, in particular: a power ballad lip-synch routine and an after-hours dental office visit involving clouds of laughing gas).

Hot and cool


FILM The stars say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix.

The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d’Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude.

And yet … this is not Gigli (2003), despite the slimmest of Venn diagram overlays (lesbians). In the states, at least, Blue stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2012’s Farewell, My Queen) don’t yet haunt the tabloids of the nation’s checkout lines. Once you’ve committed to the three-hour runtime, it’s not too difficult to tune out the static, the Daily Beast interview, the tearful press conferences, the threats of litigation, and focus on a film that trains its own mesmerized gaze on a young woman’s transforming experience of first love.

In the early scenes of Blue, which spans perhaps 10 years, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a quiet, reserved, slightly dreamy teenager living with her family in the suburbs of Lille, a city in northern France near the Belgian border. We see her making the long commute to the city center for school, reading and musing and writing in her journal, in class, with peers, silently turning over the mysterious events of her life. Pursued by a boy at school and goaded by her friends, she attempts to form an attachment to him and, when the experiment fails, is appalled, identifying something lacking inside herself.

We know what it is — and so does she, on some level. Earlier, in a French class, poring over a text by Marivaux, a teacher proposes the idea of a coup de foudre, love at first sight, a bolt from the blue, and we gather that one is coming for Adèle, something to jar her out of her silence and noncommittal posture, out of listening and reading and into life.

When the thunderclap comes, it’s a chance encounter in a crosswalk, the kind where time behaves oddly, and the rest of the world flattens out and goes achromatic. We hear Adèle’s breathing before we see Emma (Seydoux), a sexy, butch, blue-haired girl who comes strolling into focus with an arm slung over her girlfriend’s shoulder. The moment has a sensual weight to it, carried in Emma’s eyes as they lock with Adèle’s, as she manages to signal something vital to the younger girl, filling in a kind of outline of desire where before there was a dull, confusing nothingness — until time reasserts itself, leaving Adèle disoriented and caught in moving traffic.

When, months later, they meet again by chance; or predestination, as Emma flirtingly suggests; or because Adèle has wandered alone into a dyke bar in search of something she’s not ready to cop to, their conversation isn’t earth-shattering (except, because it’s even happening, to Adèle), but their connection, here and during successive encounters, is unsettling and electric.

Most of this comes across in the small, guarded expressions that flicker onto Adèle’s face, her eyes communicating, at different times, wonder, unease, submersive desire, or panic as she silently digests and wrestles with what is unfamiliar, exhilarating, and, eventually, heartbreaking and terrible.

Through all of this, the camera stays close, sometimes unnervingly so. In an early domestic scene, as the voracious Adèle wolfs down spaghetti Bolognese, we are treated to a detail-rich shot of her chewing, open mouth; at night we watch her sleeping and feel slightly creepy about it. And this is before her fantasies about the blue-haired girl begin, and before they manifest, in a series of lengthy, literal sex scenes that have inspired nervous laughter in darkened movie theaters, accusations of voyeurism, and that Idaho blackout, among other responses. Yet the camera’s relentless, intrusive intimacy brings us as close to the inside of Adèle’s head as she will allow anyone, including Emma, to get.

As for those scenes of grappling, slapping, tangled physicality — they’re uncomfortable, and insistent, and they feel very real. Also, like we shouldn’t be standing there watching for quite so long, though it’s certain to be an edifying experience for many in the room. And it may be that Kechiche is intent on an exercise of compare and contrast, offering up these extended interludes, in which two female lovers try their best, for hours, to crawl inside each other’s skin, as a sort of response to an early, abridged scene between Adèle and her boyfriend that ends unsatisfyingly for at least one of them.

There’s a certain heavy, explanatory neatness to that, of a piece with other devices that sometimes drag at the film. Must there be two separate conversations about the delights of oyster eating, to trace Adèle’s trajectory and palatal shift? Yes, Kechiche seems to feel, as if he’d just made a surprising discovery at a queer spoken word night in 1992. Gravely delivered classroom lectures, early in the film, likewise coincide miraculously, pointing always in the direction of Adèle’s life — the coup de foudre, a discussion of predestination, another on the perversions of the natural world, another still on ineluctable tragedy.

One or two of these moments would suffice. But little of the time spent in Adèle’s quiet company feels wasted. We sit with her for hours, quietly marking milestones in a relationship that blooms and deteriorates; standing nearby as Adèle falls apart, too; watching a heart expanding and breaking apart and reassembling, changed. *

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

The conversations


FILM Half a lifetime ago — that is to say, sometime in the mid-’90s — on a train rolling through Austria, a young American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) met a young French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). They were in their early 20s, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem outlandish when, after some passing miles and some good conversation, he asked her to get off the train with him in Vienna, proposing that they spend the next 12 or so hours wandering the city, until his flight home in the morning. He didn’t scream axe murderer, and he made the case that if she stayed on the train, she might look back on her decision in 20 years, from the vantage of an unsatisfying marriage, and regret it. On paper, it sounds dubious bordering on smarmy. But sometimes it’s all in the delivery, and it didn’t seem too lunatic when Celine said yes.

So for the next hour and a half, we followed them as they traced a meandering itinerary among Vienna’s monuments, cafés, bars, and riverside walkways. Drifting through half a day’s worth of dense conversation (a sort of retort to the typical romantic comedy montage), they told personal anecdotes, took philosophical positions, and did a certain amount of playful flirting, whose intensity crept upward with the passing hours as the parameters of their encounter began to constrict. By morning, we were pretty invested in the last-minute arrangement they made just before Celine boarded her train: to reconvene there, barring personal constraints, in one year’s time. As the sun rose on all the places they’d passed through, empty now, we were left with that ambiguous possibility and our own guesses and projections as to whether Jesse and Celine would ever see each other again.

Since 1995, when director Richard Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke told this story in the film Before Sunrise, they’ve returned to these characters three times: they surface in a disconnected cameo in 2001’s animated Waking Life. The 2004 follow-up Before Sunset, shot in real time, reunites them after nine years in a Paris bookstore, where Jesse, now a successful writer, is reading from his novel about their time together in Vienna; more discursive talk and a beautifully ambiguous ending ensue. And now Before Midnight marks the third installment in a series whose occasional, compressed episodes submerge us so deeply in a particular moment of Jesse and Celine’s lives that we begin to forget how long it’s been since we saw them last.

When the newest film — co-written, like Before Sunset, by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke; Linklater wrote the first film with Kim Krizan — picks up with Celine and Jesse, another nine years have passed. And it’s possible that they no longer recall with the warm clarity we do that gorgeous, affecting, flirty scene in the last few moments of Before Sunset, when we left them alone in Celine’s Paris apartment listening to Nina Simone, Jesse looking very likely to miss his plane back to the States this time around. It was one of the more perfect movie endings in recent memory, true. But in the intervening years, a lot has happened, including twins, a rancorous divorce and custody fights (for Jesse, whose teenage son lives in Chicago with his ex-wife), another best-selling (and semiautobiographical) novel, various environmental battles (for nonprofit worker Celine), and nine years of steady, unrestricted companionship that have inevitably overshadowed the telescoped intensity and romantic longing of the pair’s early encounters.

Now in their early 40s, Jesse and Celine have formed a web of commitments domestic and professional, and Before Midnight reflects this shift by adopting a more expansive outlook, the camera pulling back to take in a wider circle of family and friends. The film begins with a scene between Jesse and his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), saying their farewells at an airport in Greece’s southern Peloponnese, where the family have been spending the summer at the home of an older expat and writer, Patrick (played by veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally).

When we finally see Celine, waiting curbside at the car with their little girls, she’s on the phone with a colleague in Paris, and her and Jesse’s exchanges as they drive signal a habitual intimacy (new to us but now commonplace to them) — as well as a few recurring sources of tension. Back at Patrick’s, the camera moves amid a crowded intergenerational scene and, at dinner, circles the table in an extended take as these disparate characters reflect on the stages of love and life in the kind of rambling, associative conversation we’ve come to expect of the series.

There’s a neatness to the generational roll call at the dinner table — a couple in their 20s (whose long-distance affair via Skype is juxtaposed to Before Sunrise‘s romantic, chancy gesture); two couples in their 40s; the elderly Patrick and a female friend, both widowed. But the discussion itself is messy like life, and things get messier still when Jesse and Celine finally manage some alone time. We see the people who met half a lifetime ago, but the shock of recognition comes when the fissures in their relationship are fully exposed, cracks we can follow back nearly 20 years, as well as forward. We remember, and so do they, Jesse convincing Celine to get off the train with that fast-forward glance at a possible future, and wonder if we’ll ever see the two of them again.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT opens Fri/31 in Bay Area theaters.

SFIFF report: French glam … and grit


At the outset of Friday evening’s SFIFF screening of the ’50s-set French film Populaire, director Régis Roinsard offered two hints as to what lay ahead — noting that his SF sightseeing agenda had included a visit to Jimmy Stewart’s Lombard Street Vertigo residence, and encouraging the audience to stick around for a Q&A sampling of his Borat-level English proficiency. As it turned out, Roinsard handled the post-screening questions with slightly awkward but un-Borat-like charm (and occasional interpreter assistance). And the film itself — while featuring a man gripped by a daffy obsession involving a beautiful blond, who, come to think of it, is often seen sporting an updo — has a considerably lighter mood than the Hitchcock thriller, finding its tense plot turns and clacking rhythms within the fast-paced world of competitive typing.

Yes, typing, and perhaps if it weren’t the ’50s, this would be the fluorescent-lit story of a soul-sucking data entry job and the office drone who supplements it with a moonlighting gig. But it is the ’50s, a cheery, upbeat, non–Far from Heaven version, and Populaire invests with a shiny glamour the transformation of small-town girl Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) from an incompetent but feisty secretary with mad hunting-and-pecking skills into a celebrated and adored speed-typing champion. The daffy obsessed guy is her boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris), a handsome young insurance salesman who bullies her, but very charmingly, into competing against a vast secretarial pool in a series of hectic, nail-biting tourneys, which treat typing as a sporting event for perhaps the first time in cinematic history. (See also: scenes of Rose cranking up her physical endurance with daily jogs and cross-training at the piano.)
The glamour slips a touch when Populaire (Roinsard said he took the title from the Nada Surf song “Popular”; the word also translates as “working-class”) starts to delve into psychological motivations to rationalize some of Louis’s more caddish maneuvers. But meanwhile, back in the arena, bets are made, words-per-minute stats are quoted by screaming, tearful fans in the bleachers, hearts are won and bruised, a jazz band performs that classic tune “Les Secrétaires Cha Cha Cha,” and we find ourselves rooting passionately for Rose to best the reigning champ’s 312(!)-wpm record.

Fast-forwarding a few days and a couple decades, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, which screened Monday night and opens theatrically May 17, depicts a France far removed from the modern-fairy-tale setting of Populaire. Set a few years after the strikes and street battles of May ’68 (the film’s original title is Après Mai, or “After May”), Something centers on a group of radical teenagers in the Paris suburbs grappling with riot police and questions of what use to make of themselves in the world. Only loosely plotted, the film is more a series of vignettes, tracking the restless progress of Gilles (Clément Métayer) and a handful of his cohorts through school’s end, their flight to an Italian squat for the summer after a political action at home turns violent, and the dispersal of the group to various world-map points.

School seems to be mainly a place to sell movement newspapers to other students, or to wheat-paste and graffiti-bomb the walls at night. Conversations revolve around political sectarianism and the pitfalls of bourgeois documentary-filmmaking impulses. And position speeches on revolutionary tactics and relationships alike are delivered with a flat dogmatism (Gilles’s friend Alain makes it through the entire two-hour film without cracking a smile) as the characters attempt to sort out their allegiances to political revolt, art making, and romantic entanglement.

While the youth of Assayas’s film seem to view their lives and actions against a vast panorama of political and social import, the heroine of Justine Malle’s Youth keeps her gaze trained on a smaller circle encompassing academic ambition, romantic and sexual exploration, and family, though the order of precedence shifts several times over the course of this small, somewhat slight coming-of-age film. Malle is the daughter of celebrated French director Louis Malle, who passed away in 1995, and Youth is a semi-autobiographical examination of a 20-year-old girl’s experience of losing her father amid a period of personal upheaval.
Juliette (Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe and sister of actor Louis) is in the midst of studying for entrance exams and falling in love (she believes) for the fourth time when she learns that her father has been diagnosed with a fatal and quickly moving virus. Unable or unwilling to fully register this terrible new reality, she spends little time with him at the country house where he lives with his third wife and their daughter, choosing to stay in Paris cramming for her exams and pursuing a lengthier sexual résumé.

This is some dark material to mold into story form, and in certain ways it feels as if Malle had trouble looking at it as she worked with script cowriter Cécile Vargaftig. It’s hard to know how much overlap exists between the events Malle experienced nearly 20 years ago and those Juliette goes through on-screen, but the film has the feel of a tight fit, with little room leftover to step back and gain perspective.

SFIFF continues through May 9.

Out for more


FRAMELINE It was Blue (1993) and Swoon (1992) and Frisk (1995), or My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Hours and Times (1991). Paris Is Burning (1990). The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995).

It probably depended a little on who you were and what you’d seen lately that made you feel grateful to be coinciding with this point on the timeline of queer cinema. For me, it was Lilies (1996) and Go Fish (1997), and All Over Me (1997) and Beautiful Thing (1996), and every other gay teen romance, and any totally f***ed up thing Gregg Araki chose to put onscreen (including 1995’s Doom Generation, billed as “a heterosexual film by Gregg Araki,” which made straight look like a fairly provisional state of being). It was kind of like irony or porn — I couldn’t exactly define it, but I was pretty sure I knew it when I saw it while bingeing, mid–gay adolescence, on whatever the 1990s had to offer in the way of LGBT experience on film. “It” being this thing called New Queer Cinema, a term that film critic and scholar (and past Guardian contributor) B. Ruby Rich had coined in a 1992 essay in the British film journal Sight & Sound.

Rich, these days teaching in UC Santa Cruz’s Film and Digital Media Department, offered up the idea of New Queer Cinema as a way to frame a ragged-edged genre that she saw emerging. Populating it were films that told unfamiliar, upsetting, outrageous, and sometimes deeply lyrical stories of queer experience, forcing a more complicated picture onto the screen. As many of them gained a cultural foothold (seldom reaching deep into the mainstream, but drawing respectable numbers of art-house-goers), they made a space around themselves for more such films to follow their unsettling examples.

Over the next decade and beyond, the genre, and the larger, disparate queer culture, welcomed a world of untold stories; films like My Own Private Idaho and later Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) entered the popular culture by way of some combination of star and story power; and one morning we woke up to the sight of significant swaths of the country heading to the multiplex to watch a swoony, gloomy tale of two cowboys in love.

Now, somehow, Brokeback Mountain (2005) is starting to seem like a long time ago, and you could say that New Queer Cinema has both evolved and devolved, a fact reflected in the rom-com-packed LGBT section of your friendly neighborhood video store as well as in each passing year’s Frameline festival catalog. This year, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival offers the opportunity to compare and contrast, casting its eyes back on the genre 20 years after Rich pronounced its existence and sketched its parameters.

In addition to presenting Rich with its annual Frameline Award, the fest has programmed a retrospective of four films that offer a sense of New Queer Cinema’s expansive scope and permeable borders: Alex Sichel’s dark-and-light, riot grrrl music–infused All Over Me (costarring a baby-faced Leisha Hailey from The L Word); Ana Kokkinos’s Head On (1998), about a reckless but closeted young man living in a tight-knit Greek Australian community; Gregg Araki’s violent, trashily romantic, HIV-inflected road movie The Living End (1992); and Cheryl Dunye’s experimental mix of documentary and dyke drama The Watermelon Woman (1996). (In 2012’s Mommy Is Coming, also screening, Dunye adds to the mix Berlin sex clubs, explicit taxicab-backseat role play, and a parent-child dynamic likely to leave you flinching in horror.)

Elsewhere in the fest, French writer-director Virginie Despentes’s Bye Bye Blondie has a mosh pit soundtrack and follows, clumsily, Araki’s frenetic and unrestrained example. Béatrice Dalle (1986’s Betty Blue) and Emmanuelle Béart (2002’s 8 Women) play former teenage punk rock sweethearts who met in a mental institution and reunite after a long estrangement to reenact the past and rip open old wounds. A high point, though not for their relationship, occurs when Dalle’s slightly unhinged character tells a woman at a highbrow cocktail party, populated by Paris’s public-intellectual set, that her dress is sectarian, before physically assaulting another guest. Cloying and soap operatic, offering the gauzy fantasy fulfillment of a Harlequin Romance, Nicole Conn’s A Perfect Ending nevertheless earns points for its premise of an uptight housewife who employs the services of a call girl — and for casting Morgan Fairchild as a madam who uses her Barbie collection as a staffing organizational tool.

Other queer stories are more successfully delineated. Aurora Guerrero’s coming-of-age tale Mosquita y Mari, which screened at the SF International Film Fest in April, soulfully and subtly captures the ambiguous friendship that develops between two Latina high schoolers struggling with unspoken feelings as well as pressures both familial and financial. In Joshua Sanchez’s Four, adapted from a play by Christopher Shinn, Fourth of July fireworks and a mood of lonely isolation serve as a backdrop to four disparate individuals’ uncomfortable attempts to find physical and emotional connection. Stephen Cone’s The Wise Kids is set in and around a Southern Baptist church in Charleston, South Carolina, and tracks a trio of teenagers as they sort out the facts of their religious and sexual identities.

There’s a startlingly small quantity of queer baby-making going on in this year’s fest compared with recent years, and the family proposed in writer-director Jonathan Lisecki’s romantic comedy Gayby (as well as Ash Christian’s Petunia) is not necessarily nuclear or easy to encapsulate in kindergarten on “Let’s draw our family tree!” day, marrying the concept of queer family to the Heather-has-two-mommies narrative. The film’s gay-boy Matt and straight-girl BFF Jenn decide that it’s time to settle down and start a family together, but reject the idea of turkey basting or consulting a fertility specialist in favor of comically awkward, highly unerotic, goal-oriented sexual intercourse.

Come to think of it, their method could resonate with the procreation-only, can’t-wait-to-be-raptured crowd, who might be less enthusiastic when the pair switch to good old-fashioned DIY insemination and Matt’s friend Nelson (a scene-stealing Lisecki) brings over a container of holy cat cremains to sanctify the proceedings. Either way, with queer spawning sometimes serving as the rope in a tug-of-war argument about heteronormativity, queer identity, transgression, and basic rights, an unruly rom-com about queer family planning is a fitting entry in a genre and a festival that have both grown into panoramic representations of the queer world.


June 14-24, most shows $9-$11

Various venues

SFIFF 2012: gone but not forgotten


It’s been a week since the San Francisco International Film Festival ended, but after 15 days largely spent sitting in the dark at the Kabuki, submerged in a flood of cinematic storytelling, the afterimages are still taking up considerable space in my brain.

And questions remain, like: Why didn’t anyone from Lauren Greenfield’s crew on the documentary The Queen of Versailles report time-share mogul David Siegel or his wife, Jackie, to the Orlando-area SPCA for casually sitting down to brunch and letting their family’s pet python roam unchaperoned through a house filled with fluffy white purse dogs?

And what was going through moderator Audrey Chang’s head when a post-screening Q&A for Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille’s cult doc The Source devolved into a noisy, chaotic processing session for an audience filled with former cult members? And did other audience members exit the theater after watching Jessica Yu’s Last Call at the Oasis feeling paralyzingly hyperaware of their gigantic, sloshing waterprint, knowing that any one action they might be about to take — be it using the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas restroom, riding the 22 Fillmore home, or going out for a much-needed cocktail to take the edge off incipient doom — likely represented dozens of gallons’ worth of heedless water use?
And a last pressing question: Will anyone see to it that Mosquita y Mari, written and directed by Aurora Guerrero, reaches more-disparate theater screens after it finishes its festival circuit? (In the wake of its January Sundance screening, it did get picked up for DVD and VOD distribution by Wolfe Releasing.)

First-time feature director Guerrero has set her sweet and sorrowful, semiautobiographical coming-of-age film in LA’s Huntington Park neighborhood, where Latina teenagers Yolanda (aka Mosquita; played by Fenessa Pineda) and Mari (Venecia Troncoso) form an unlikely friendship that drifts silently and slowly toward a more ambiguous state. Beautifully shot and scripted, using young local nonprofessionals for much of the cast, Mosquita y Mari tells a small, poignant tale exceedingly well, carefully weaving its tenuous love story into the larger settings of neighborhood and school and two immigrant households whose younger generations find themselves struggling to navigate the track laid down by their parents.

Like many of its cohorts in this year’s SFIFF program, the film demonstrates the benefits of living amid the Bay Area’s small galaxy of annual festivals — and richly deserves to travel farther afield.

Crazy, sexy (?), movies


YEAR IN FILM We ask depressingly little of our romantic comedies, particularly considering that they’re meant, one guesses, to cheer us up. While genres like the action thriller and the disaster film engage in an arms race of catastrophe that, while riddled with clichés, requires some amount of ingenuity to orchestrate, when it comes to the rom-com, the studios display fierce loyalty to a formula of marquee names, charming emotional baggage, foolish misunderstandings, and final-boarding-call epiphanies.

You could say that our relationship with the genre is going nowhere, like the one the perky, anal-retentive heroine is perpetually on the brink of settling for with some handsome, amiable cardboard cutout, too afraid to take a chance on surly, diamond-in-the-rough Mr. Right. You could say that watching these films is an empty transaction, like those the gleaming-toothed protagonist enters into with a parade of leggy, blank-faced bar pickups before recognizing eureka!-style that the best friend who tolerates his slutty superficiality is clearly a soul mate.

We don’t quite buy it, any of it, but back and back and back we go — if often lining up in numbers sustaining the briefest of theater runs, or going no further than the Netflix queue. Which perhaps explains, though just barely, how we (by which, of course, I mean I) happened to be in the theater this year for Just Go with It, staring wearily screenward at the companionable but chemistry-free pairing of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston; for the tortured, slightly icky mismatch of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached; and even for New Year’s Eve, wherein an ungodly hodgepodge of Hollywood brands are desperately flung at the screen in the hopes that something will stick.

Generally compiled from interchangeable parts, the romantic comedy has been manufactured so many times that the players seem exhausted by the effort to find a fresh configuration, something unattempted and captivating. The ghosts of long-ago lighthearted pictures from the golden era of madcap romance, like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), hang over the proceedings, sparking wistful visions of some magical cinematic equation that, when X is solved, will result in old-fashioned sensations like a warmed heart and toasty goodwill toward the lip-locked pair over whom the credits are rolling.

On the flip side, suffering near-continuous abuse at the hands of the studios leaves a person highly susceptible to trace amounts of handcraft and invention. Perhaps only in this spirit could I embrace Friends with Benefits, which brashly arms its hero and heroine (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) to take potshots at the formula while largely hewing to it. Still, as the two swear on an iPhone Bible app to uphold a vow of friendship previous to taking all their clothes off, and as they skate along on the fine, funny writing and frank talk and roll around in bed, it does seem like something better than usual has been accomplished.

Better by far is Crazy, Stupid, Love., which makes the case that a carefully woven ensemble piece need not jerk you from subplot to subplot, seeking famous-people sightings like an L.A. tourist with a star map. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s marriage in quiet paralysis is jarred by infidelity, triggering a badly needed upheaval and bringing one unhappy man (Carell) into the bracing orbit of another (Ryan Gosling). The creepy third-generation subplot involving a kid and his babysitter is hard to forgive, but Gosling and love interest Emma Stone, plus an intelligent script, gamely play with the conventions of the heartless womanizer and the girl who’s too much in her head.

And lastly, Bridesmaids, starring and cowritten by Kristen Wiig, arguably sidesteps both the formula and the genre itself, shifting the focus from “boy meets girl” to “woman’s life spirals wildly downward as she attempts to be happy about her best friend’s engagement.” It’s the kind of funny that makes you sink into your seat in horrified anticipation — and the kind of romance where you find yourself rooting for the inevitable rather than just resigned to it.

Sing out


FRAMELINE It may be summer break for America’s favorite Slushee-barraged show choir, but judging by the array of song-and-dance numbers in this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, Glee fever continues to spike. Half of the fest’s showcase films celebrate the power of the performing arts, including Mangus!, about a young man’s against-all-odds dream of playing the lead in his high school’s production of Jesus Christ Spectacular. Leading Ladies features a mother-daughter-daughter trio immersed in the world of competitive ballroom dancing. And the shorts roster offers no less than three musicals — the Australian films Slut: The Musical and Cupcake: A Zombie Lesbian Musical hail, naturally, from the program “Zombies, Aussies, Musicals, Oh My!,” while Who’s the Top? explores a relationship’s diminished sexual undercurrents through musical comedy. Directed by Jennie Livingston, Who’s the Top? is paired with Paris Is Burning (1990), Livingston’s acclaimed full-length documentary on the late-1980s ball scene in New York City.

The on-and-off-stage drama continues with Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together, a tale of thespians, best friends, and housemate tension rooted more in unvoiced amour than in chore wheels and whose turn it is to buy toilet paper. As the title’s Chicago-dwelling characters negotiate Jamie’s imminent departure for the Big Apple and (she hopes) Broadway, a few wistful tunes are crooned, accompanied by the occasional step-ball-change, but the songs feel somewhat opportunistically tacked on, and the film’s strength lies more in its exploration of that foggy, foggy gray area between the romance of intimate friendship and the romance of ripping the clothes off of someone you really care about.

The tweens of Spork show slightly more promise, at least when it comes to working the dance floor at a nightclub unaverse to letting in 13-year-olds. Spork — so nicknamed by her burnout but well-meaning brother due to her intersex status — is shy, awkward, and isolated at school — when not being tortured by a clique of tiny, racist mean girls led by a Britney Spears wannabe named Betsy Byotch. The answer, clearly, is to best the Byotch in a high-stakes middle-school dance-off — for if we’ve learned one thing from Glee and every high school musical and dance-ical pumped out by Hollywood in the past few decades, it’s that community can be found through soaring vocal harmonies, choreographed ass-shaking, and following one’s dreams.

This lesson is perhaps best exemplified by Leave It on the Floor, which updates (and fictionalizes) the drag and tranny ball scene of Paris Is Burning, transports it to the warehouses of South Central L.A., and adds some infectious music and lyrics (the song “Justin’s Gonna Call” is particularly likely to stay trapped in your brain for days). Leave It‘s kicked-to-the-curb protagonist, Brad, is equally in need of community and a place to crash, and he finds both (after a fashion) in the House of Eminence, the reigning underdog of the ball scene, proudly populated by outcasts and freaks — as well as a hot dueting partner, queer family, and a closing-number set of runway moves that nearly set a warehouse ballroom on fire and probably won’t be coming to a show choir competition near you anytime soon.


June 16–26, most films $9–$15

Various venues


New York story


FILM The central characters in Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Please Give, Manhattan couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), display a fluency in the language of large round numbers that is occasionally disturbed by bouts of self-inflicted sticker shock. The proprietors of an up-market vintage furniture store — the hunting ground of interior designers and affluent nesters with a taste for midcentury modern — they troll the apartments of the recently deceased, redistributing the contents at an astonishing markup that occasionally leads to soul-searching exchanges like this: “How come you feel OK about this?” “Because it’s OK.” “OK.” Whether or not it’s OK, clearly it’s a living, since the couple has purchased the entire apartment of their elderly next-door neighbor (Ann Guilbert). Waiting for her to expire so they can knock down a wall, they try not to loom in anticipation in front of her granddaughters, the softly melancholic Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the brittle pragmatist Mary (Amanda Peet).

Holofcener has entered this territory before, examining the interpersonal pressures that a sizable income gap can exert in 2006’s Friends with Money. Here she turns to the pangs and blunderings of the liberal existence burdened with the discomforts of being comfortable and the desire to do some good in the world. Kate’s hand-wringing, while reflexive, keeps her up at night, and as she ably acquires the furnishings of the dead, she suffers crises of conscience about preying on the ignorance of their bereaved but busy adult children. Unfortunately, her penance is often embarrassingly misdirected. While her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) suffers the less-abstracted agonies of bad skin and low self-esteem, Kate offers her leftovers to a black man waiting outside a restaurant for a table, mistaking him for a homeless person, and presumptuously weeps over a group of developmentally disabled teenagers playing basketball.

In scenes such as this, the film capably explores the unexamined impulses of liberal guilt, though the conclusion it reaches is unsatisfying. Like Holofcener’s other work, Please Give is constructed from the episodic material of mundane, intimate encounters between characters whose complexity forces us to take them seriously, whether or not we like them. Here, though, it offers these private connections as the best one can hope for, a sort of domestic grace accrued by doing right, authentically, instinctively, by the people in your immediate orbit, leaving the larger world to muddle along on its axis as best it can. (Lynn Rapoport)

PLEASE GIVE opens Fri/7 in Bay Area theaters.

Moore and less


FILM The people in Atom Egoyan’s movies have a tendency to be hiding things — pieces of their history, damages inflicted along the way, and complex motivations that are keys to our understanding of how the lives in a knotted web intersect and affect one another. We follow these expressive yet withholding characters, often back and forth through time, and collect subjective and fractional versions of the truth. Like the films themselves, Egoyan’s touch can be heavy — the characters saddled with exposition, the presence of coincidence at the intersections verging on the magical. He’s also proved that his intricate planning can backfire spectacularly (see: 2005’s Where the Truth Lies). But the results of his maneuverings rarely feel inconsequential: we are told, and have reason to believe, that our actions, our ideas, and even our untrustworthy narrations are freighted with meaning, for ourselves and those around us, in our peripheral vision and far out of sight.

The theme of undependable narrative surfaces in Egoyan’s newest film, Chloe (a remake of French director Anne Fontaine’s 2003 Nathalie), but here the artifice — of the premise itself — is so hard to move past as to feel at times like a barrier, rather than a passageway into the interior of a handful of lives. We do see interiors, in the beautiful, chilly household of Catherine (Julianne Moore), a Toronto doctor who suspects that her professor husband, David (Liam Neeson), may be cheating on her. And one of the more haunting images in the film is the painful sight of Catherine drifting through their home at night, barred from the rooms where her husband and teenage son (Max Thieriot) carry on their private, unknowable lives.

Why this unbearable situation would lead her to contact Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a beautiful young call girl she just met, and hire her to engineer an interaction with David to test his fidelity, is not quite clear. Nonetheless, one masochistic transaction leads to another, and in a series of lavish and exquisite settings, we, along with Catherine, are treated to the erotic details of Chloe’s encounters with David, which begin to charge the connection between the two women as well.

Moore’s work is as fine as ever, and she invests with pathos the role of a woman anxiously examining both her marriage and herself for signs of frailty and decay. But Egoyan has settled for something here: trying to beguile and seduce us. And in the end, this is more disturbing, and surprising, than the rather sharp turn Chloe makes into the landscape of the erotic thriller, where it takes the shape of an unbelievable story we’ve been told many times before. (Lynn Rapoport)

CHLOE opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.

To read Mara Math’s interview with Atom Egoyan, go here.

“Remember Me” is — you guessed it — forgettable


Ominously set in New York City during the summer of 2001, Remember Me, starring Robert Pattinson (of the Twilight series) and Emilie de Ravin (of TV’s Lost), pretty much answers the question of whether it’s still too soon to make the events of September 11 the subject of a date movie.

Or rather, not the subject so much as the specter waiting just off-camera for its walk-on while brooding 21-year-old Tyler Hawkins (Pattinson) quotes Gandhi, gets into brawls, gets drunk, writes letters to his dead brother, and otherwise channels despondency and rage into various salubrious outlets. One of these is romancing (under circumstances severely testing the viewer’s credulity) de Ravin’s Ally Craig, grappling somewhat more constructively with her own familial tragedy. Ally is the sort of self-possessed, strong-willed young woman whose instincts, shortly after she’s been backhanded by her drunk father (Chris Cooper), tell her to placate and have sex with her drunk boyfriend when he comes home enraged after battling his own father (Pierce Brosnan). She is there to teach Tyler, through quirky habits like eating dessert first, what director Allen Coulter (2006’s Hollywoodland) wishes to teach us: that time is short and one must fill one’s life with meaningful actions — like throwing a fire extinguisher through a window to convince a classroom of tweens to stop bullying one’s little sister. The film is seeded with allusions to an impending catastrophe that feels less integrated than exploited. And it’s uncomfortable seeing the fall of the towers used to make the ground shake under a sweet, fairly depthless depiction of love and grief.

Remember Me opens today in Bay Area theaters.

Citizen Welles


FILM It’s 1937, and New York City, like the rest of the nation, presumably remains in the grip of the Great Depression. That trifling historical detail, however, is upstaged in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) by the doings at the newly founded Mercury Theatre. There, in the equally tight grip of actor, director, and company cofounder Orson Welles — who makes more pointed use of the historical present, of Italian fascism — a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar hovers on the brink of premiere and possible disaster.

To a layperson, that might not seem like the best time to sub in a player, but luckily for swaggering young aspirant Richard (High School Musical series star Zac Efron), Welles (Christian McKay), already infamously tyrannical at 22, is not a man to shrink from firing an actor a week before opening night and replacing him with a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey. Particularly one who (says he) can play the ukulele. Finding himself working in perilous proximity to the master, his unharnessed ego, and his winsome, dishearteningly pragmatic assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), our callow hero is destined, predictably, to be handed some valuable life experience.

McKay makes a credible, enjoyable Welles, presented as the kind of engaging sociopath who handles people like props and hails ambulances like taxicabs. Efron projects a shallow interior life, an instinct for survival, and the charm of someone who has had charming lines written for him. While Richard’s seemingly limitless bravura is amusing, the resultant adventures and mishaps don’t seem to elicit much reaction within; what we witness is mild and momentary and bland. Still, he and Welles and the rest are all in service to the play, and so is the film, which offers an absorbing account of the company’s final days of rehearsal, including the hair-pulling frustrations that the cast, the crew, and Mercury cofounder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, from 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky) undergo for the sake of working in close quarters with genius.

Absent are the naturalistic talking jags with which Linklater made his name; here it’s largely banter and smooth talk and gossipy stage whispers. But just as the teenagers of Dazed and Confused cruised through a sludgy stoner soup of ’70s rock, the players of Me and Orson Welles flirt and prank and strut the streets of Manhattan with the atmospheric backing of Gershwin crooners and snappy big band numbers. The one jarring moment, both sonically and in the film at large, is the sound of Efron singing mid-production, earnest and plaintive and incapable of banishing that poppy HSM tremble from his delivery.

Me and Orson Welles opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

Take warning



The forests are in flames, the desert is advancing, the glaciers have vanished, and in a solar-powered facility towering above the ice-free waters of the Arctic, some 800 miles north of Norway, a solitary older man (Pete Postlethwaite) roams the hallways of the Global Archive, a warehouse sheltering banks of data-storage servers, a civilization’s worth of art and invention, and a Noah’s ark of extinguished species. From this lonely outpost, he gravely explores a stomach-churning inquiry: "We could have saved ourselves. But we didn’t. It’s amazing. What state of mind were we in to face extinction and simply shrug it off?"

Good question, and one that Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, a hybrid merging documentary material and a fictional frame tale, forcefully suggests we start addressing like we mean it — immediately. That is to say, before runaway climate change makes its debut and some or all of its widely forecasted ecological consequences begin to manifest, along with resource shortages, food and water riots, and massive societal collapse.

Delineating the complex global network of climate-change causes and effects, The Age of Stupid interweaves real-life documentary footage from the lives of six present-day subjects in New Orleans, the French Alps, Jordan, southwest England, a small Nigerian fishing village, and Mumbai, India. Interspersed is real and faux (future) archival footage depicting and predicting the environmental consequences of humanity’s bad habits. And all of it is presented as the digital artifacts of a dying-off civilization, preserved for uncertain posterity in the Global Archive. While covering similar terrain to that of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the film serves as a kind of "No, but really, folks …" in the face of frighteningly incremental gestures toward sustainability — and continued shortsighted resistance — at the levels of national, state, and local government as well as citizenry.

The film’s opening sequence begins with the big bang and hurtles via countdown clock through billions of years, flying past the earliest stages of evolution, past dinosaurs, past the industrial revolution, and past the present day, the titular Age of Stupid, so fast that we barely have time to notice ourselves on the screen before it’s 2055, the Age of Too Late. The message: in the grand scheme of things, we have about a nanosecond left to kid ourselves as we refill our metal water bottle and press the start button on our Energy Star-qualified washer-dryer or Prius — or to find a way, at the level of populace, not green-minded individual, to radically swerve from our current path. According to Armstrong and her cohorts in the Not Stupid Campaign, the film’s companion activist effort, our fate will pretty much be decided by December’s climate talks in Copenhagen. (The film, which premiered in the U.K. in March, has its 50-country "global premiere" Sept. 21-22.)

So then, do the canvas bags, travel mugs, energy-saving appliances, clotheslines, CSA memberships, cycling, recycling, composting, and other ecologically minded efforts of a smattering of well-intentioned individuals matter at all? Or matter enough — in the face of factories, factory farming, methane-emitting landfills, canyons of office towers lit up 24/7, a continent-sized constellation of plastic detritus in the Pacific, and millions of trips cross-country at an average elevation of 30,000 feet?

Colin Beavan, the subject of Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s No Impact Man, is banking on yes, being of the "be the change you wish to see in the world" school of thought (admittedly in good company, with Mahatma Gandhi). Taking its name from Beavan’s book project and blog, No Impact Man shadows the NYC-based writer; his wife, Michelle Conlin, a senior writer at BusinessWeek admitting to "an intense relationship with retail" and a high-fructose corn syrup addiction; and their toddler daughter, Isabella, during a year in which they try to achieve a net-neutral environmental impact.

This entails giving up, in successive stages, with varying degrees of exactitude, packaged food (hard on a family whose caloric mainstay is take-out), nonlocal food (hard on a woman who drinks multiple quadruple-shot espressos a day; impossible, as it turns out), paper products (magazine subscriptions, TP), fossil-fuel-dependent transit (airplanes, elevators, and even the subway), electricity (i.e., the refrigerator), and, to a large extent, trash. The idea is to learn empirically — and demonstrate — which behaviors might be permanently ditched and which are virtually hardwired.

There are, predictably, certain criticisms –- from irritated environmentalists, from semianonymous blog commenters, from the New York Times Home and Garden section. There is the matter of giving up public transportation rather than championing it, and the issue (raised by a community gardener who takes Beavan under his wing) of Conlin’s laboring for a high-circulation publication that trumpets capitalist virtues antithetical to the project of tapering off consumption and waste. And Beavan sometimes comes across, particularly in the book, as well-meaning but stubbornly myopic in his focus on self-improvement.

Then again, the guy and his family gave up toilet paper, electric light, motor vehicles, spontaneous slices of pizza, and many deeply ingrained habits of wastefulness for a year while most of the rest of the country got up each morning and brushed their teeth with the water running. What impact the No Impact project might have on, for instance, the mounds of trash-filled Heftys that line Manhattan’s sidewalks each week remains to be seen. But as the Age of Stupid winds down, it’s probably a waste of time to fault anyone’s attempts to forestall the Age of Too Late.

NO IMPACT MAN opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.

THE AGE OF STUPID plays Mon/21, 8 p.m., SF Center. Visit for additional Bay Area screenings.

Unhappily ever after


There’s a warning at the tender, bruised heart of (500) Days of Summer, kind of like an alarm on a clock-radio set to MOPEROCK-FM, going off somewhere in another room. Probably a room with the blinds closed, the nightstand littered with empties and Hostess wrappers, and a tender, bruised-hearted young man curled up in bed with three days of depression stubble growing on his face.

The alarm has been set for our protagonist, the above-described ill-shaven swain, but also, no doubt, for a goodly number of delusional souls in the darkened movie theater, sitting in blissful proximity to their imaginary soulmate the next seat over. Setting a terrible example for them is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a student of architecture turned architect of sappy greeting card messages, who opts to press snooze and remain in the dream world of "I’m the guy who can make this lovely girl believe in love."

The agnostic in question is a luminous, whimsical creature named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who’s sharp enough to flirtatiously refer to Tom as "Young Werther" but soft enough, especially around a pair of oceanic blue eyes, to seem capable of reshaping into a true believer. Her semi-mysterious actions throughout (500) Days raise the following question, though: is a mutual affinity for Morrissey and Magritte sufficient predetermining evidence of what is and is not meant to be? Over the course of an impressionistic film that flips back and forth and back again through the title’s 500 days, mimicking the darting, perilous maneuvers of ungovernable memory, first-time feature director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber answer this and related questions in a circuitous fashion, while gently querying our tendency to edit and manufacture perceptions.

File under romantic comedy, for lack of a category for charming interventions on behalf of dreamy-eyed victims of willful self-delusion and pop culture. There’s certainly plenty to laugh at here, such as a postcoital scene involving a choreographed jazz-dance routine through downtown L.A., set to Hall and Oates’ "You Make My Dreams Come True." But other, swoonier songs and scenes produce a more poignant effect, and Gordon-Levitt’s dead-on depiction of his character’s romantic travails perfectly evokes the sensation of an enduring, unwise crush, the longing like a weight on one’s heart, and the intractable, bittersweet memories that, no doubt, have kept many a viewer awake at night.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER opens Fri/17 in San Francisco.

When in roam


Involving no catatonic housewives, no mortally botched abortions, and no luminous pools of blood in the kitchen either, Sam Mendes’ latest film presents a somewhat happier tale of domesticity than 1999’s American Beauty or last year’s Revolutionary Road, if "tale of domesticity" is a fair description for a road movie in which the stated goal is a home.

In Away We Go — from a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida — 30-something couple Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) find themselves unexpectedly ditched during Verona’s second trimester by the only set of theoretically adoring grandparents available, Burt’s flakily self-absorbed parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels). Thus unsettled, the two set off in search of a place to provide their child with an "epic," "Huck Finn-y" childhood, as Burt wistfully envisions it. Some parents might quibble with this aim, given Huck’s epic stint as a runaway on a river, but some offspring, even grown ones, might find it pleasurable to imagine their parents dreaming for them a heroic, adventurous youth, rather than the anxious rigors preparatory to an Ivy education and a professional life.

In any case, away they go to visit friends in Phoenix, a sister in Tucson, a cousin in Madison, Wis., and so on — each stopover offering interludes with the film’s excellent ensemble cast and presenting Verona and Burt with various slices of parenting life to digest or spit out. We don’t see much of these places; Away We Go is, until the end, only vaguely concerned with geography, focusing its lens on private scenes even in public places. At a Phoenix dog track, Allison Janney provides hilariously, wildly inappropriate commentary on life with pre-postal husband (Jim Gaffigan) and silently resentful children. In Madison, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton ooze sanctimony as a noxiously evolved couple raising their children via the Continuum school.

During calmer, more sober moments, you may find yourself idly pondering your investment in the drama and domestic arrangements of this financially solvent, utterly in love, ideally suited pair. But the dialogue is clever enough, the protagonists engaging enough to patchily override such cynical thoughts. If you can handle the twee whimsy of a shot in which the itinerant couple’s plane is transformed into a leaping dolphin in the reflection of skyscraper windows, you’re more than halfway home.

AWAY WE GO opens Fri/12 in San Francisco.

SFIFF: Oaktown fugue


The stillness inhabiting Bay Area director Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New is broken periodically by the sounds of familial battle and the bemused, unemotive back-and-forth of a trio of men perplexed by the circumstances they have drifted into. The most dramatic intrusion, though, is instrumental, an occasional frenzied jigging of horns and strings that seems to signal the internal noise experienced by one of these uneasy men, a carpenter and family man named Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), who is trudging through his middle years in a state of unhappy wonder.

Shot in Oakland, the film uses a series of portrait-like scenes of house exteriors to convey the static emptiness in Wayne’s life, which he describes in voiceover monologues, his voice rising and falling just outside the boundaries of monotone. The contrast between these still lifes and the recurring shock of the soundtrack is almost painfully discordant, though the landscape intruded on is far from idyllic. When the camera moves inside one of the houses, the one where Wayne coexists with his wife, Renée (Beth Lisick), and their two sons, it’s filled with signs of residence but seems as empty and still and dead as the outside world, as if the family has just retreated from some personal apocalypse. Later the camera trails through a gutted Victorian as Wayne and Renée are heard quarreling, then processing as modeled by some couples’ counselor in their past — more emptiness and a sense of unending minor tragedy. Wayne presents a marriage sapped by financial exigencies such as the now-familiar house worth less than their debt.

These signs of trouble are plain enough, but emotionally expressive. Occasionally Bradshaw leans a little heavily on the symbolic, as when we see Wayne as he envisions himself, in the getup of a clown, and when the film runs backward through a trafficked street scene. More problematic, though, is the awkward shift in direction and shape that occurs when the resident stillness is interrupted by something more sharply horrific than the characters’ day-to-day suffering.


Sun/26, 8:45 p.m.; Tues/28, 4:15 p.m.; May 2, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki



REVIEW If comparisons between Bertrand Normand’s Ballerina and Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s 2005 Ballets Russes are inevitable, it’s perhaps mostly indicative of how infrequently a feature-length ballet documentary gets made and distributed. Then again, one could argue that the stark differences in subject and scope are historically significant. Richly researched and packed with archival footage and modern-day interviews, Ballets Russes depicts the milieu of dancers, choreographers, and impresarios exiled from postrevolutionary Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Ballerina trains its focus on the world they left behind, or what became of it, concentrating on the grueling, somewhat circumscribed lives of five female dancers making their careers in present-day, post-Soviet Russia, in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, where the world-renowned Kirov Ballet has its home. Where Ballets Russes describes the historical arc within which modern ballet as we know it was created, Ballerina describes the smaller, personal arcs of two newer dancers making their painstaking way out of the corps de ballets and three principal dancers, one who is returning to work after a lengthy injury. Interviews and footage of unending classes, rehearsals, and performances clarify the single-minded conviction and commitment with which these young women approach their vocation, accepting physical pain and deprivation as a daily reality, while instructors and artistic directors sketch the larger picture of a profession in which early retirement is a fact of life. Still, the film has a flatness of tone that is literally conveyed in the somewhat run-of-the-mill narration ("A ballerina’s work is never done") and paralleled by the flat affect of most of the subjects. The performance footage is lovely — though also offering ample evidence of the Kirov’s aged repertoire — but perhaps the most visually startling moment occurs during an admissions exam at St. Petersburg’s premier ballet school, in which 10-year-old aspirants are put through their paces virtually naked, their limbs manipulated by ballet masters attempting to divine the future.

BALLERINA opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.



REVIEW In Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, set in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, a character corrects himself in addressing his companions as gentlemen, saying, "Excuse me, comrades." A reverse correction signals the changed times in 12, where Mikhalkov takes up a more modern, post-Soviet tale, using a familiar framework to tell it. Based on Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957), the film follows the jury proceedings of a Moscow murder trial in which an orphaned teenage Chechen boy is accused of killing his adoptive father, a Russian army officer who rescued him from the war-obliterated village where he’d lost his parents. Throughout a long day and night, the jurors (whose foreman is played by Mikhalkov) deliberate, battle, come unhinged, and reveal, through prejudiced tirades and intelligent argument alike, a flawed legal system and a corrupt society that fail to function in tandem. In a departure from the original, 12 releases the viewer at brief intervals to visit the prisoner in his chilly cell and to witness childhood scenes of poignant and piercing clarity. But at nearly three hours, the film makes us feel the time crawling by and its effect on these men, locked away from their lives in a room they expected to sit in for half an hour before consigning a young man to life in prison. And the fractures and damage we witness in each of them as the hours pass seem to form a mosaic of modern Russian society, fractured and damaged itself by the traumas of its political and cultural history.

12 opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

No joy


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If a road movie has car trouble and gets stuck in an unnamed town — say, somewhere deep in the Pacific Northwest — what we are mostly trained by our moviegoing résumé to see is a setup: for a lesson about small-town life, for a tangle with zombies, for an episode of boy meets girl. In Kelly Reichardt’s sparsely plotted film Wendy and Lucy — from a screenplay cowritten by Reichardt and Jon Raymond and adapted from a short story by Raymond — a stranger comes to town, but with no fanfare to speak of. And the events that follow are so quiet in tone and pace and, in a sense, so familiar that they’re almost unrecognizable as dramatic turns. After a while, something sinks in, and we adapt to the drifting rhythm of the film, in which the stranger, a transient young woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams), goes through hard times while barely anyone pays much attention.

Girl meets train hoppers. Girl meets Walgreens security guard. Girl meets bad luck and self-righteousness and various town-employed individuals, and the fact that these passing acquaintances exert meaningful influence over Wendy’s life and circumstances is mostly a reflection of how fragilely constructed that life is. Traveling north in a janky old car with her dog, Lucy (actually Reichardt’s dog, Lucy), in search of gainful employment in Alaska, Wendy gets stuck in a small Oregon city, and the film is a painstaking record of her attempts to stay on course, to keep it together for herself and her companion. The camera reflects these pains, patiently waiting with her while she exhausts her limited options.

Reichardt’s previous film, 2006’s Old Joy, also adapted from a story by Raymond, and a road movie minus the engine trouble, takes a similarly measured, muted, intimate approach, moving within delicately drawn boundaries describing a small narrative territory. Keeping company with a pair of young men during a two-day drive through rural Oregon, it depicts their reunion and a friendship that has thinned and shifted over the years, then takes them back home to their separate lives again.

The stories Reichardt and Raymond seem most interested in telling are these hushed, submerged ones that unfold unnoticed, barely recognized as stories. Signaling this in Wendy and Lucy are the high school boys who pass by Wendy’s car late one night idly talking some trash, one pausing mid-narrative to note, "Dude, fuck, there’s a lady in there." The dumb malice of the high school bruiser is a familiar enough cinematic element, and we brace ourselves for trouble as they approach, but these kids don’t even care enough to break stride, much less bring more problems into Wendy’s life. And that’s how it goes over the handful of days during which the film tracks her worsening circumstances, quietly asking us to notice her and remain attentive while the world proves largely incurious as to her fate.

But where Old Joy examined the intimacies and discomforts of a frayed relationship, the mood of Wendy and Lucy, two-name title aside, is set by Wendy’s solitude and lack of connection to those in her vicinity. She comes across as relatively incurious herself; fear or disinclination and, one imagines, some unreferenced web of relationships in her back story make her unwilling to engage here, and the few conversations she enters into are like financial transactions.

It’s absorbing to watch Williams vanish into this unapproachable character, but her near-wholesale disconnection makes it hard to be deeply moved by Wendy, even as we remain transfixed by a document of her quiet travails and maneuverings. The result is a sketchiness and a slightness, an impression that will fade. We witness and experience the film’s losses, disruptions, and sorrows, but from a rigorously maintained distance, in the life of someone who was, after all, just passing through.

WENDY AND LUCY opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.

All American Rejects


In a world populated entirely by curfewless teenagers, where seemingly nobody is checking IDs at the door, the amount of high-pitched drama that can go down on a Friday night between dusk and dawn is virtually limitless. At least an entire teen-movie subgenre has been constructed upon this premise, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is the latest entry to put its sturdiness to the test.

Somewhat reprising his role in Juno (2007), Michael Cera plays Nick, a soft-hearted indie boy who’s the bassist in a queercore band with his two best friends (Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron). Nick (straight) is in mourning over his six-month relationship with a vapid über-bitch named Tris (Alexis Dziena), who happens to be school frenemies with Norah (Kat Dennings), who happens to have made a habit of rescuing Nick’s lovelorn mix CDs from the succession of trashcans into which Tris has callously tossed them.

We know that Tris is all wrong for this emo boy — her hair salon highlights alone scream, "I would never have gone out with this guy in the first place, so why did you cast me in this role?" Regardless, the film further underscores her unsuitability by painting her as an outsider to the world of true indie rock fandom, a poseur who doesn’t appreciate a good breakup mix and, worse, fumbles the name of the coolest underground band in town.

Said band, Where’s Fluffy, famed for its secret shows, is the engine that drives our awkward hero and heroine and their cohorts out into the night, and the film is basically a tour of young indie rock New York City, with pit stops all over lower Manhattan and Brooklyn and a cameo by freak folker Devendra Banhart. But all the madcap piling in and out of cars and motoring around in search of Fluffy begins to look like work, and so, at times, does Nick and Norah’s inch-by-inch romantic progression. A soundtrack packed with signifiers like Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses might not be enough to keep us in the mood, leaving us wishing they would find Fluffy already and let us go home. (Lynn Rapoport)


Opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.

Vamp camp


STRAIGHT-TO-DVD REVIEW These are dark and bloody times for vampires. The Mormon-made young adult series Twilight goes multiplex in December. Next month brings the premiere of True Blood, an HBO drama about our fanged frenemies, created by Six Feet Under‘s Alan Ball. And at the vanguard of the iron-deficient-creatures-of-the-night revival is Lost Boys: The Tribe (Warner Premiere), a long-delayed sequel to 1987 teen vampire classic The Lost Boys.

Twenty years have passed since the Emerson family moved to Santa "Santa Cruz" Carla, when young Sam (Corey Haim) tacked up that sexy poster of Rob Lowe and met the Frog brothers (Haim ex-BFF Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander); older bro Michael (Jason Patric) partied down and pounded blood with overbite sufferer David (Kiefer Sutherland); and the mulleted, steroidalicious dude from Tina Turner’s band with the oily slip ‘n’ slide torso hoisted his sax aloft, sang "I Still Believe," and forever ruined the good name of Santa Cruz’s music scene. The back cover of The Tribe refers to the sequel as a "modern remagining" of the original. Does she mean to imply an imagined TV show or film name? Given how far downhill the national culture has slid over the past two decades (think, oh … The Two Coreys), it should come as no surprise that the straight-to-DVD sequel is figuratively as well as literally a suckfest.

A new pair of Emerson siblings, orphaned brother and sister Chris and Nicole (progeny of Michael? Sam?), move to a beachside town called Luna Bay and soon begin knocking heads and other body parts with a gang of meathead surfer vamps (the Poison look: definitely out). Having left behind his parents’ comic book shop, mysteriously solo vampire slayer Edgar Frog (Feldman) has taken up residence in a creepy trailer. A talentless half-brother to Kiefer Sutherland named Angus has been dredged up to play head bloodsucker Shane, who takes a shine to Nicole and slips blood in her drink, roofie-style, at a party.

Saddled with a mind-boggling script and actors of ill or no repute, the filmmakers attempt to distract us by upping the trash quotient. Picture a Dumpster after a six-week Sunset Scavenger strike. Or rather, picture a crapstorm of severed heads, entrails, impalements, fountains of blood, tits, alcoholic beverages poured on tits, ass, not one but two girl-on-girl makeout scenes, and many, many money shots of vampires mid–feeding frenzy. Suffer through the closing credits for The Two Coreys reunion as painful as anything you’ve seen on the A&E Television Network or YouTube. Suffer through the extras for a pair of equally Corey-tastic alternate endings, an Edgar Frog featurette on the tools of the trade (carbon fiber stakes, holy water balloons), and a depressing video in which a "Cry Little Sister" remix is performed for an audience of downmarket extras taking a stab at vampire chic.

Jet boy, jet girl


>>Also in this issue: A quick guide to the new queer Argentine cinema

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A father sits at the bedside of his child and, when asked what he is doing, softly answers, "I’m looking after you." Words and tone and eyes convey anxiety, fatigue, and overwhelming tenderness, and this complicated admixture quietly telegraphs, to the viewer and the child on-screen, in the aftermath of trauma and terrifying distress, a heart-calming constant: that, as he tells another character, from the moment of her birth, he has always seen her as perfect.

This flawless child, Alex (Inés Efron), the emotional focal point of Lucía Puenzo’s XXY, is also a moody, unpredictable 15-year-old, and her own complicated admixture is spiked by impetuousness, caprice, casual cruelty, and a tendency to press at the boundaries of those in her orbit. She’s also captivating, forcefully intelligent, and unreservedly herself, even while holding the world at bay to protect a secret, even in the process of feeling her way, via impulse and reflection, toward an understanding of what, exactly, that self is.

Decisions made before Alex’s birth have, in a sense, led to this sweet and sorrowful exchange between father and daughter. She was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics, and raised female (perhaps based on test results and the best guesses of doctors, though this is never stated outright). Her parents, Kraken (Ricardo Darín), a marine biologist, and Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli), decided to forgo a so-called normalizing surgery for Alex: in essence, a dubious attempt to impose a firm gender identity at birth. Without ever fully conquering their own unease and fears for a beloved child, they have left her in possession of the facts and the right to make her own choices — an emotional, improvised, and at times visceral process.

The task, grown more difficult with adolescence, takes on a painful new weight when Erika (Carolina Peleritti), an old friend of Suli’s from Buenos Aires; her husband, Ramiro (Germán Palacios); and their teenage son, Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky), come to visit the family’s home on the southern coast of Uruguay, where they moved shortly after Alex’s birth. This other family of three, with its own fraught relationship between father and child, carry with them the social dictates and preconceptions Alex’s parents have sought to shield her from by living in an isolated place. They can’t, of course, shield her, and Alex is changing already, with or without the interference of strangers, but their arrival invests her process of discoveries with a sense of urgency, of necessity. In part this is because Ramiro, a renowned plastic surgeon, has come intending to recommend and advise them on "corrective" surgery. But the attraction that forms between his son and Alex exerts its own force on both of them, and for Alex such a connection inevitably involves the desire to reveal herself (literally and otherwise) and the risk of betrayal that attends such exposure.

Puenzo’s first full-length film, XXY is beautifully shot by cinematographer Natasha Braier and, save for a few false notes, well scripted — its silences and ambiguities and transfixing images engaging our imagination and sympathy. However, much of the credit for its successes (it has won numerous international awards, including several at Cannes in 2007 and Frameline 2008’s audience award for best feature) falls to Efron’s portrayal of Alex, whom we come to view with that same potent compound of emotions that she raises in those who watch over her in the film.


Opens Fri/1 at Bay Area theaters

“Hello-Now, From Everywhere”


On the corner of 20th and Valencia streets, there’s a window that makes people think of the dead. The reason is a series of annotated sketches that, over the past few years, has gradually accumulated on the glass to the right of the doorway at Dog Eared Books. A sort of eulogistic message board for drifting window shoppers, these paper notices gently call attention to the passing of poets, visual artists, writers, teachers, and other cultural heroes, some renowned, some formerly celebrated, and others largely unknown — though not to Oakland artist Veronica De Jesus, the creator of this memorial window.

Now, with the window grown crowded, another local artist and a friend of De Jesus’s, Colter Jacobsen, has published a collection of the memorials (Allone Co., $18). Tributes to Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Robert Creeley, Octavia Butler, Will Eisner, Quentin Crisp, Richard Pryor, and Rick James are interspersed among pages dedicated to death row prisoner Stanley "Tookie" Williams; Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis, whose roles also included circus performer, Pacifica radio host, and Green Party candidate for governor of New York; the New Zealand experimental novelist and poet Janet Frame; and "Don" Magargol, a folk dance instructor at San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

The spiral-bound notebooks in which these memorials are collected — and the cover image, a drawing of a largely denuded but vibrant dandelion superimposed on what looks like crumpled paper that’s been imperfectly smoothed out — suggest a continued meditation on impermanence and remembrance, the attempts we make to prolong or enlarge the presence of our heroes and loved ones in the world after they leave us.