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San Francisco International Film Festival: What to See 

Wednesday, Apr 20 2011

Page 2 of 3

The Good Life
(Eva Mulvad, Denmark)
This up-close yet curiously superficial documentary considers the limited prospects and bottomless bitterness of the formerly parasitical rich. An elderly Dane and her fiftysomething daughter, ensconced in a seaside Portuguese town where they once lived high on the porco, pass the days budgeting, bickering, and bargaining to scrape by on mom's meager monthly pension. A dog supplies companionship, while old home movies provide undying fuel for the world-wise mother's resignation and the once-spoiled daughter's resentment. Alas, the women's dynamic doesn't approach the harrowing complexity and funny/horrifying weirdness of Big Edie and Little Edie's relationship in the timeless Grey Gardens. In this instance, the fact that the Danes have been downsized from jet-set, ultraposh lifestyles doesn't exactly register as a great human tragedy; what's more compelling about their plight — yet underexplored — is the trick of surviving on an insufficient fixed income. M.F.
Friday, April 22, 3:45 p.m.; Thursday, April 28, 6:45 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, 9:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo's Cannes prizewinner is a humane and subtle rebuke to the presumed banality of ordinary life. Just before leaving Korea for a new try in another country, an impoverished would-be director (Kim Sang-kyung) meets his old friend, a depressed movie critic (Yu Jun-sang), for cocktails and conversation. As the two young men knock back round after round of drinks and swap stories of their recent adventures in a small seaside town, each evidently is too self-involved to realize that they were in the same places with some of the same people at almost the same time. Their ostensible present tense is conveyed in black-and-white stills, overlaid with voiceover conversation and a regular "Cheers!" refrain, while the long takes of their remembered anecdotes have motion and color and occasional punctuating zooms. Hong gently suggests that even the most ineloquent emotional foibles can make for affecting memories — best when shared, but ultimately, poignantly, private. J.K.
Friday, April 22, 6:15 p.m.; Monday, April 25, 9 p.m.; and Tuesday, April 26, 3:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Meek's Cutoff
(Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Tenacious indie Kelly Reichardt has specialized in quirky, minimalist quasi–road movies in which loners come unmoored in some great American space. Meek's Cutoff is that and more — one great leap into the 19th-century unknown. Directed from Jon Raymond's fact-based script, this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Oregon-set 1845 Western recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Chris Blauvelt's camera lingers on three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan) dutifully trudging behind their husbands' covered wagons. Meek's Cutoff has a few beautifully understated images of cooperation as the settlers drag their wagons across the scrub brush, but the movie's major concern is the problem of bad leadership. Having split off from a larger wagon train, the party elected to follow Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), an extravagantly hirsute, self-regardingly loquacious guide who, in his most obvious misjudgment, brings them not to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains but the shores of a great saline lake. Events come to a head when the settlers stumble upon and are compelled to take captive an unarmed Indian scout. They regard this irredeemable Other with suspicion bordering on panic; at the same time, he's the material projection of the unforgiving wilderness in which they find themselves. Who will lead them out of the desert — the boastful blowhard Meek or this enigmatic native? Meek's Cutoff has a tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are hard to miss. J. Hoberman
Friday April 22, 9 p.m., and Monday, April 25, 4:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Nostalgia for the Light
(Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany)
Chile's self-appointed one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Patricio Guzmán, has devoted four decades to chronicling the short-lived Allende administration and the Pinochet dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen wanted him to stop. At first blush, though, his new documentary detours toward astronomy, landing rather Herzog-ishly in the Atacama Desert, the elevation and absolute dryness of which make it one of the globe's optimal observatory locations. Guzmán uses the stars' distance to ruminate on the nature of time — as in, everything, even light, even this, is in the past. He eventually winds his way around to how time has treated the ghost town turned concentration camp of Chacabuco, its ex-prisoners, the dumped bones of disappeared Pinochet victims, and the tough, striking old women who still scour the desert plateau on foot hunting for remains. Guzmán fugue-weaves all over the place, montage-cutting from the lunar surface to giant close-ups of calcified bone, and the film's philosophical musings slowly funnel down into a silent yowl of rage and a desperate plea for remembrance. (If he is to be believed, Chileans have an even stronger urge to forget than Americans do.) Often stark and ravishing, Nostalgia for the Light is most moving as a manifestation of the filmmaker's stubborn righteousness. Michael Atkinson
Tuesday, April 26, 6:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Thursday, April 28, 6. 15 p.m. at the Clay.

Page One
(Andrew Rossi, USA)
In rooms decorated with Pulitzers of the past and a giant poster of Orson Welles as Citizen Kane, harassed and anxious New York Times reporters struggle to get a handle on a rapidly changing media ecology. Filmmaker Andrew Rossi uses his all-access pass not to probe the Times' agenda-setting handling of key issues, but rather pursue the story-about-the-story of the paper's future. That material will date, but scenes of an embattled elite suddenly insecure about their future will always have relevance. A sarcastic stringbean, media reporter David Carr emerges as the film's star as he defends his paper's right to exist against a series of new media presences who, one after the other, he verbally defenestrates. G.R.
Friday, April 29, 6:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 5:30 p.m., at the New People.

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