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Past Forward 

For its 40th year, the San Francisco International Film Festival boldly goes where it has gone before

Wednesday, Apr 23 1997
* Indicates films recommended by our reviewers.

Thursday, April 24 (Opening Night)
7 p.m.
Bliss (U.S.A., 1997)

This movie is being promoted as the hottest thing since Last Tango in Paris, but it's closer to soft porn with a thick coat of varnish. Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee are the newlyweds who discover early on that their bliss isn't total. The wife can't climb the heights of passion, so she surreptitiously seeks out the services of Terence Stamp's Baltazar -- a sex therapist who knows his Tantric 12 steps. But most of the therapy is talk, and then the husband gets in on it too -- and before you know it, we're watching the equivalent of an Eric Rohmer movie directed by Zalman King. When it turns out that the wife's problems are related to repressed-memory syndrome, you may decide you want to repress a few memories yourself. (Rainer)

7 p.m. (at the Pacific Film Archive)
The Last Gasp (Sweden, 1995)
Night Music (Sweden, 1918)

Ingmar Bergman's The Last Gasp, an hourlong play filmed by Bergman for Swedish television, depicts a fictional confrontation between silent filmmaker Georg af Klercker and the financier who ruined him. Plays with af Klercker's unpreviewed feature Night Music, appropriately enough a drama about the clash between art and commerce. (Rickman)

7:15 p.m.
Love! Valour! Compassion! (U.S.A., 1996)
Satirical references to On Golden Pond can't cloak the On Golden Pondness at the core of Terrence McNally's play (now movie) about a handful of gay friends spending hot-weather holidays at a remote lakeside home in Duchess County, N.Y. It's a standard let's-face-our-mortality comedy-drama with a core group of friends replacing the nuclear family and AIDS doing service for old age. As a straight man, I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed any subtle tension or frisson in a work that, after all, has been hailed as "one of the major plays of our time"; a gay pal assured me that he wept for the whole third act when he saw it in the theater in 1995, then never thought of it again. Joe Mantello, who directed the play, also made the film, which stars nearly all of the original cast members, including John Glover doing the double turn of a nasty Brit and his sweet brother; Jason Alexander assumes the role of the musical-comedy-lover originally played by Nathan Lane (a replacement that led local wag Mike Snyder to dub the film Love! Honor! Costanza!). (Sragow)

7:30 p.m.
* Wake Up Love (Argentina, 1996)
Eliseo Subiela (Man Facing Southeast) looks back nostalgically to the Argentine '60s in this likable film about the prospective reunion of a batch of Buenos Aries baby boomers. One of Subiela's usual overanalytical heroes is once again confronted with an irrational life force, in this case an old pal who gyrates to Elvis Presley to keep fit. It's the wife of "Elvis" -- our hero's teen flame -- who resides however at the film's emotional center, in an affecting performance by Soledad Silveyra, a Giulietta Masina look-alike. Subiela maintains a nice balance of sentiment and intelligence throughout, and the film ends when it should, not when you expect it to. (Rickman)

7:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
* Jour de Fete (France, 1947)
Jacques Tati's feature debut is restored to its original color in a characteristically idiosyncratic comedy about a postman-on-wheels who tries to modernize his mail deliveries.

7:45 p.m.
* When the Cat's Away (France, 1995)
A young woman returns from holiday to find her cat missing. Cedric Klapisch's almost-too-charming film recalls in part the social utopianism of Renoir's Popular Front films as a hitherto disunited portion of modern-day Paris comes together to help her find little Gris-Gris. Klapisch gets particular comic mileage out of cat-loving old ladies in various shapes and sizes. A film for Francophiles and friends of felines, two formidable blocs of SFIFF attendees; expect sellouts and fistfights in the lobby as tickets skyrocket in value. (Rickman)

Friday, April 25
1:30 p.m.
* Believe Me (Brazil, 1996)

A fascinating film from Brazil. The simple tale has an almost primordial resonance: A teen-age brother and sister fall in love and produce a child, who is ultimately set adrift, his fate left for God to decide. The son returns a man and unknowingly marries his mother; again, God is called on to sort out the mess. The burden of guilt, the innocence of children, expiation, and redemption; the filmmakers take it all, fit it to the lives of the people in a wild and desolate region of Northern Brazil, and capture it in Super 8. They revel in the saturated colors of the medium, and they let their little hand-held cameras roam over the faces and enter the lives of the denizens of this starkly beautiful wilderness. (Maher)

1:30 p.m.
* Nightjohn (U.S.A., 1996)
Sometimes a filmmaker can pour ideas he was hatching for one movie into another that gets funded. While developing Nightjohn, gifted African-American director Charles Burnett must have used his research for an unrealized project about Frederick Douglass to add texture and detail to Gary Paulsen's "age 12 and up" novel. Despite awkward, prosy patches, Burnett delivers a surprisingly full account of slave life in the 1850s, as well as a potent fable of literacy. Carl Lumbly brings bedrock conviction to the heroic Nightjohn, who feels that his people can't begin to know who they are (or what they can do) until they can spell their names. Lumbly makes you believe that this Johnny Appleseed of reading and writing would return to slavery from a free life up North, and risk mutilation for his teaching. With Lumbly, Allison Jones as his daughter, and Lorraine Toussaint as her mother providing a strong core, Burnett is able to throw the supporting cast some brilliant bits. For one whole astonishing minute, Bill Cobbs, as a slave called "Old Man," bitterly spits out the alphabet, conveying hidden danger and tragedy in every letter. The scenes between the driven plantation owner (Beau Bridges) and his restive son recall the eloquent tension of the Southern major and his son in The Ox-Bow Incident. (Sragow)


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