Now that the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival is well on its way, let us consider the boon and bane of the 75-word hold review capsule. There are 40+ titles in this year's line-up on hold-review. Several are opening theatrically no less than days after the festival concludes. Rather than argue for the inclusion of films that have no distribution and which San Franciscans have less a chance of seeing than a warm day in Summer (and I'm sure every discriminating San Franciscan cinephile can name at least five films they were upset not to find on the program), I will concede that the festival's spectacular dimension—i.e., its red carpet posturings and its informative Q&A sessions with talent—necessitate a Faustian bargain with the studios who—when all is said and done—are fully responsible for the hold review policy. As Gerald Peary has efficiently highlighted in his documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, the tension between studios and press is longstanding. Efforts to strongarm press into promotional subservience persists. Though the fear that a negative newspaper review can effectively impact a film's theatrical distribution (i.e., the money, honey) might have been well-reasoned back in the day, with the advent and ease of Google, any given film's critical reception on festival track is readily available on IMdb, Wikipedia, or The Daily @ IFC.
Granted, this is also an issue of timing. The San Francisco International Film Festival, though the oldest film festival of its kind in the Americas, is also the last festival stop in any given year. It's an irony that does not go unnoticed that—as SFIFF kicks into gear—the Cannes Film Festival is announcing the films that make up the bumper crop for the coming year. Except for the random local premiere, most of the slate for the SFIFF program is comprised of West Coast premieres. I've no particular issue with that—though I much prefer the thrill when films touch down on North American soil at the Toronto International—still, I am disgruntled by this studio hold review policy that hobbles online West Coast journalists to the demands of print journalism all in the name of regional distribution. It's an outmoded model and really should be rethought in the internet age of cinema literacy.
All that being said, and respectful of the tethers here at the San Francisco International, I offer a smattering of 75-word dollops for your reading pleasure.
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Adoration, Atom Egoyan, Canada—Atom Egoyan forces audiences to seek linearity in his scavenger hunt narratives even as he fetishizes technology as a means of disseminating both truth and misinformation. Redeemed by the sforzandic dynamics of Mychael Danna's score, this coming-of-age tale suggests that—despite the effort—no one really matures: ex-wives implicate themselves in questionable manners; grandfathers disseminate hate; uncles shift the weight of their burdens onto others.
Crude, Joe Berlinger, USA—Though the devil is well-known to everyone, it's still worthwhile to define him in the details. Berlinger's compelling exposé of how international corporate lawyers have manipulated Ecuador's judicial system to justify and further exploit the nation's petroleum resources is as thick and viscous as the sludge buried underneath topsoil. This David and Goliath story succeeds for actually making it to trial, where Chevron emerges with a bruise on its forehead.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, David Russo, USA—This bittersweet fantasy is made all the more remarkable by David Russo's ability to contain its preposterous premise to entertaining effect. The recently-touted "bromance" reaches procreative depths in Little Dizzle and I challenge you not to be touched by the comic, affecting performances of Marshall Allmann and Vince Vileuf. Likewise, Natasha Lyonne returns to shining form as a seductive marketing guru. Filmmaker Magazine was prescient in tagging Russo as a filmmaker to watch.
Laila's Birthday, Rashid Masharawi, Palestine—It's not quite Cash Cab, but, fares crisscrossing Ramallah provoke cabbie Abu Laila's Keatonesque demeanor and provide seriocomic vignettes that comment on the dangerous absurdities of warfare on the average parent. The various characters in Abu Laila's cab sustain passing interest even as the film's opening sequence predictably announces its final scene. Consider it a Palestinian Falling Down but with a happy outcome or—to coin another cliché—it's all about the journey.
Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico—Alexis Zabé's planimetric aesthetics fully support Eimbcke's droll indirection. With a moving tip-of-the-hat to Umberto D., Lake Tahoe's protagonist Juan (Diego Cataño, Duck Season's "Moko") loses one parent to death, the other to grief, and comes to terms with his own loss by granting favors to a scruffy batch of loveable characters, including an old mechanic, a teenage mother who's just a girl that doesn't care about anything, and an aphorism-dispensing Bruce Lee wanna-be.
La Missión, Peter Bratt, USA—With ambitious heart, Peter Bratt depicts the breadth of Chicano/Latino life in San Francisco's Mission District through details ranging from the now-banished lustrous low-riders to paleteros to Nezahualcoyotl t-shirts. Less successful is La Missión's gratuituous use of violence to criticize violence and its misguided usage of a gay relationship to denote gentrification issues (handled competently in Quinceñeara). La Missión hazardly skirts the edge of romanticizing homophobia even as it seeks to devalue its damaging consequences.
Moon, Duncan Jones, England—Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is mere weeks away from returning home to Earth after a three-year stint mining fusion fuels on the dark side of the moon when events run askew and hallucinatory. Kevin Spacey, channeling the voice of Hal, offers computerly advice as Astronaut Sam discovers just how clonely it can be in outer space. Zowie Bowie deferentially—and quite competently—harkens back to sci-fi classics 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running.
Oblivion, Heddy Honigmann, Netherlands—I'm frequently amazed at Honigmann's facility for eliciting bare-souled testimonials from her subjects, even if I'm sometimes uncomfortable with how she needles them to do so. Notwithstanding, Honigman captures the role of memory and perseverance among the working support class and unemployed street performers of Lima, Peru, who remind that survival is the only way to ward off oblivion, which stalks us all. Set against financial ruin, a juggler of crystal balls evokes grace and magic.
The Paranoids, Gabriel Medina, Argentina—You've heard the saying: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not trying to bore you"? Or something like that? Argentine director Gabriel Medina's The Paranoids is a clear instance of where the 75-word limit of a hold review is a blessing in disguise. Failing to energize even the most spare of narratives resulted in my disgusted irritation by film's end. Miguel Pendas and I clearly did not watch the same movie.
Rudo y Cursi, Carlos Cuarón, Mexico—Rude and corny, indeed. Y Tu Mamá También co-stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal reunite with scriptwriter-turned-director Cuarón, under the aegis of Cha Cha Cha (A. Cuarón, Iñárritu, del Toro), all to mixed effect. Sibling rivalries underscore this Cinderfella fútbol tale with Bernal effortlessly chewing up the scenery (his music video is hilarious) and Luna delivering an inspired, conflicted performance as the brother whose dream is usurped by the other's misguided ambitions.
Soul Power, Jeffery Levy-Hinte, USA—Step back Woodstock! Get out of the way Monterey Pop! Here comes Zaire '74, recovered from the remnant footage of When We Were Kings, belatedly but never late. James Brown, Masekela, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, B.B. King, among other stellar talents, infuse this concert documentary with raw talent and a driving magnetism that underscores just how much soul we've lost since then. Soul Power restores it in its full glory for a thrilling 93 minutes.
Tyson, James Toback, USA—The leap from the articulate and charismatic theatrics of Muhammad Ali to the belabored justifications of Mike Tyson is notable. Toback—who is receiving SFIFF52's Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting—employs split screen and variant camera angles to capture the controversial heavyweight champion in his own words. Hearing Tyson's voice break with emotion while his face remains chiseled as stone belies all that's hidden underneath what's forbidden on the street.
(Untitled), Jonathan Parker, USA—Most parts wry and acerbic, though somewhat disempowered three quarters in, Parker's uneven skewering of the New York art scene has its moments, particularly in the fulfilling performances of Marley Shelton as an art gallery dealer torn between commerce and creativity—but then who isn't?—and Vinnie Jones as Damien Hirst, whose taxidermic installations the closing credits insist bear no resemblance to any artist living or dead. Yeah, right.
A Week Alone, Celina Murga, Argentina—Much like Rodrigo Plá's La Zona, though considerably less melodramatic, Murga's subtle study of class privilege as registered in middle-class Argentine adolescents living in a well-to-do gated community is deceptively simple, deepening in retrospection, revealing how entrenched these biases are and how nearly impossible they are to undo (parents are virtually absent). When outsider Juan (in a charismatic turn by Ignacio Jiménez) appears, it reveals class strategies of scapegoating inferiors to escape culpability.