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  • San Francisco International Film Festival | Preview

    SFIFF 2012

    By | April 17, 2012

    The 55th annual San Francisco International Film Festival (April 19 – May 3) will feature 174 films, representing 45 countries. Among the films are 72 narrative features, 69 shorts, 33 documentaries, 55 female directors and four world premieres. Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen will open the festival, Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister will be featured as the Centerpiece screening, and Ramona Diaz’s documentary Don’t’ Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey will close the festival. Tribute screenings include Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, Fritz Lang’s House by the River and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

    Smells Like Screen Spirit has gotten a jump-start on SFIFF 2012 to prepare you with a preview of the films we have seen so far:



    Director: Alison Klayman
    Like an exceptional cat that has learned to open doors, Alison Klayman gains incredible access to document Ai Weiwei’s life, allowing us to observe as he transforms from a cult celebrity of the art world into an international figurehead for the pro-democracy movement in China. It is clear that Ai, by agreeing to allow Klayman to record his every move, intends to shape Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry into a piece of political theater. The resulting Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is not a biography of the conceptual artist, it is a diatribe about one man’s battle against the censorship and repression of an authoritative regime. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry from True/False 2012 and our Berlin 2012 interview with Alison Klayman.)



    Director: Craig Zobel
    Writer: Craig Zobel
    Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Phil Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, James McCaffrey, Stephen Payne
    Other than the increased stress, it’s business as usual. At least until the phone rings. It seems there’s a police officer (Pat Healy) on the line and he needs to talk to Sandra (Ann Dowd) about a very important and sensitive matter. A customer has gone to the police and accused cute 19-year old cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) of stealing some cash from her purse. While it’s a bit out of the ordinary, he insists that he’ll need Sandra to assist with the investigation until officers can arrive. Apparently they’re in the middle of a larger investigation involving Becky and her brother but need Becky to be held until they can arrive. Sandra is hesitant at first but in no time at all is under the spell of the authoritative and manipulative voice on the line and is enjoying the thrill of playing police officer by proxy. (Check out our 7.5 out of 10 review of Compliance from SXSW 2012.)



    Director: Adam Leon
    Writer: Adam Leon
    Starring: Tysheeb Hickson, Tashiana R. Washington, Zoë Lescaze, Meeko Gattuso, Joshua Rivera, Melvin Mogoli
    Gimme the Loot‘s naturalistic, guerrilla-style cinematography (Jonathan Miller) is offset by overly-manicured dialogue that would have benefited from organic, free-flowing, improvisational delivery. Writer-director Adam Leon’s micro-budget indie has a poetic rhythm to its “day in the life” structure, as it attempts to navigate the economic and social disparities between Manhattan and the outlying boroughs. Gimme the Loot removes parental guidance from the equation, turning New York City into a lawless playground for teenagers. One might say that Gimme the Loot glorifies Sofia and Malcolm’s life of crime and simultaneously softens Leon’s critique of the economic quagmire in which they are immersed. Despite their reliance upon thievery to survive, it is difficult not to root for the film’s anti-heroes, Sofia and Malcolm. Gimme the Loot won the Grand Jury prize in the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW 2012. (Check out our 6 out of 10 review of Gimme the Loot from SXSW 2012.)



    Director: Morten Tyldum
    Writers: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg, Jo Nesbø (novel)
    Starring: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Julie Ølgaard, Eivind Sander, Kyrre Haugen Sydness, Torgrim Mellum Stene
    Adapted from Jo Nesbø’s best-selling novel, Headhunters is an incredibly taut thriller that surpasses the recent Scandinavian sensation — the Millennium trilogy. (Speaking of… You might notice Diana watching The Girl Who Played with Fire on television or recognize some aerial shots from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that director Morten Tyldum co-opted for Headhunters.) Immaculately paced and conceived beautifully, Headhunters is a perfect example of why Scandinavian thrillers can often be much more effective than Hollywood ones. (Do not fret if you prefer Hollywood thrillers — Summit Entertainment has already acquired the rights to produce an American remake.) This is partially because Scandinavian cinema conveys a uniquely cold and uncomfortable tone that seems impossible for Hollywood to match. Scandinavian cinema also seems to assume that its audience is more intelligent than Hollywood cinema does; Headhunters, for one, never panders or over-explains things and it always assumes that we are giving it our undivided attention. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Headhunters from Fantastic Fest 2011.)



    Director: David France
    Twenty five years after their inception, Act-Up’s chant of “healthcare is a right” continues to echo throughout the streets of the United States, with the ongoing debate over “Obamacare” and national health care. Even though today’s debate is not about one specific disease or epidemic, the opposition to affordable and accessible health care has not changed. It is very frustrating to look at things this way; but, on the bright side, How To Survive a Plague reveals that activism does work. Activists are often perceived as nuisances, and activism is often assumed to be pointless; but How To Survive a Plague provides us with one very concrete example of how activism can work. (Check out our 7 out of 10 review of How To Survive a Plague from True/False 2012.)



    Director: Laurent Achard
    Writer: Laurent Achard, Frédérique Moreau
    Starring: Pascal Cervo, Austin Morel, Karole Rocher, Mireille Roussel, Noël Simsolo, Brigitte Sy, Charlotte Van Kemmel
    Visually, Last Screening is gorgeously stylistic ode to giallo cinema that, despite the appearance of a few modern day elements, looks and feels like a product of the 1970s. Functioning as a romantic lament for the twilight of celluloid, the cinematic world created by writer-director Laurent Achard is a place where the past and present coexist. The Cinéma Empire is frozen in time like a time capsule or museum exhibit; but the present has not been very kind to Cinéma Empire, as technological advances and social changes have rendered the traditional business model of one-screen cinemas unprofitable. Sylvain’s brain also seems stuck in the past, playing an endless loop of haunting memories of his mother. Even Sylvain’s character functions as a referential mash-up of two of the creepiest protagonists in film history — Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom) and Norman Bates (Psycho). Like Cinéma Empire, Sylvain is defined by history and his inability to exist in the present is what renders Sylvain a violent social deviant. (Check out our 7 out of 10 review of Last Screening from Fantastic Fest 2011.)



    Director: Julia Loktev
    Writers: Julia Loktev (screenplay), Tom Bissell (short story)
    Starring: Hani Furstenberg, Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze
    The audience must rely upon non-verbal communication in order to have any understanding of what the hell is going on. But, despite its minimal use, language does play a major role in The Loneliest Planet. The three characters are unable to communicate in their native languages — Dato’s is Georgian, Alex’s is Spanish, and Nica’s is never disclosed — so they must compromise and speak in thickly accented English. (Whenever Georgian and Spanish are spoken, the dialogue is left unsubtitled, placing the audience in the same position as the other two characters.) The three characters are foreigners to each other due to linguistic differences, and they must shed a major part of themselves to be able to communicate with each other (in other words, they even become foreigners to themselves). (Check out our 7 out of 10 review of The Loneliest Planet.)



    Directors: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia
    Writers: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia
    Starring: Daniel Arzrouni, Nadimé Attieh, Walid Ayoubi, Nawal Mekdad, Sablawork Tesfay
    Attieh and Garcia employ lots of long, still shots punctuated by long stretches of silence. The film is also narrated by Rania Attieh as if we, the viewer, are flipping through a travel brochure. Candid interviews are weaved throughout the film, providing a greater sense of depth to the characters, which Arzrouni’s character still lacks. Attieh and Garcia’s direction aids in a sense of discomfort the longer we look at this man. Should we feel sorry for him? Is he worth of it? Ok, Enough, Goodbye is a twist on the traditional coming-of-age story. (Check out our 6 out of 10 review of Ok, Enough, Goodbye from AFF 2011.)



    Directors: Elizabeth Mims, Jason Tippet
    Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s film is kind of like a punk rock Real World but more gritty and authentic; and like Real World, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Some viewers will accept Only the Young as fact, while others will probably believe that it is fiction. Only the Young blurs the definition of Documentary filmmaking. My best guess is that Mims and Tippet had a directorial influence on some of the on screen events; some scenes seem a little too perfectly framed and choreographed for there not to have been some direction taking place. Also, the narrative is so strong and prevalent, that it is clear that Mims and Tippet sculpted this story from a significantly larger chunk of footage. But, then again, just because Only the Young premiered at True/False Film Festival does not mean that Mims and Tippet consider it to be a documentary film. Between the words “true” and “false” is an entire spectrum, and Only the Young falls somewhere along that spectrum. Most surprisingly, the fictional influences do not lessen the impact of Only the Young, if anything those tropes are utilized to heighten the film’s sense of realism. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of Only the Young from True/False 2012.)



    Director: Maïwenn Le Besco
    Writers: Maïwenn Le Besco, Emmanuelle Bercot
    Starring: Karin Viard, Joey Starr, Marina Foïs, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maïwenn Le Besco, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frédéric Pierrot, Arnaut Henriet, Sandrine Kiberlain
    Maïwenn Le Besco selects police cases with the purpose of gaining the effect of interest. During the officers-victims’ conversations, a sense of disbelief develops in what they experience and in what we hear. There is a mother in the police station who calms down her little boy by giving him regular blow-jobs. There is a teenage girl who has sex with her colleagues to get back her mobile phone. A forty-something father confesses that he fantasizes about his eight year old daughter during sexual intercourse with her mother. Every single statement like the ones mentioned above intensifies the tension. Stress appears in the group of police officers that could hardly be eased. You can scream, fight, party together, have affairs… Nothing helps. Romances, particularly, do not change a thing; because the sexuality in Polisse appears only in its most grotesque dimensions. (Check out our 7 out of 10 review of Polisse.)



    Director: Lauren Greenfield
    In retrospect, it is quite difficult to rustle up any sympathy for David and Jackie — though Greenfield makes it nearly impossible for us to not feel a little bit sorry for them. (Greenfield might be rethinking this sympathetic approach now that David Siegel filed a libel lawsuit against her, claiming that the press release for The Queen of Versailles wrongfully implied he had gone bankrupt.) Greenfield cleverly models The Queen of Versailles on reality television and she utilizes the tried and true tropes of that genre to tug at our emotions. That said — I harbor an unfathomable amount of disdain for most reality television programs, but found The Queen of Versailles to be light-years more intelligent and intoxicating. If The Queen of Versailles does crossover into the reality television audience, I can only hope that it helps elevate the standards of the genre. (Check out our 8 out of 10 review of The Queen of Versailles from True/False 2012.)

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