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Week 2 of the San Francisco International Film Festival

Derrida (U.S.A./France, 2002)

Jacques Derrida, the French master thinker, is less a philosopher (i.e., lover of thought) than a doubter who wonders if thought is even possible. He willingly participates in this documentary about his life, and is as responsible for its peculiar tone as the filmmakers. It may have been Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's idea for white-haired "Jackie," as his wife calls him, to pose in front of a video screen showing him watching a video of an earlier interview, but Derrida did choose to play along. The media abyss Derrida peers into offers no insight; the interview at the center of this labyrinth is one in which Madame and Monsieur Derrida resolutely refuse to offer any clue as to the emotional nature of their marriage. The Minotaur has checked out. Flashes of Derrida's personality -- such as his pained dismissal of an interviewer's offering of Seinfeld as an example of deconstruction -- and of his ideas come through in this film, which devotes equal screen time to Derrida buttering a muffin and to him elucidating his concepts. Scenes of Derrida lecturing are quite interesting; there should have been a lot more of them. Dick and Kofman, in attempting to deconstruct the documentary genre, bobble the better film they could have made because they fail to realize that their subject, who invented deconstruction, was "always already" (as Derrida likes to say) better at it than they could ever be. The man may look like a parrot with a cocked head, suspiciously eyeing a proffered cracker of thought, but as a film subject he's an elusive hare, and the makers of Derrida a pair of Elmer Fudds. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 28, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Los Inundados (Argentina, 1961)

There's another "Voyage to Italy" besides Martin Scorsese's in this festival, and it belongs to Fernando Birri, winner of the Persistence of Vision Award. Birri, an Argentinean who returned to his father's native Italy to train with neo-realist directors De Sica et al., put his hometown outside Buenos Aires on the map as the center of the New Latin American Cinema movement. Los Inundados is his first fiction film, about a poor family stranded by flooding and then, as a result of bureaucratic bumbling, taken on a comical involuntary train ride through Argentina. When the train itself isn't functioning as a character, it's a paradoxical symbol for both official denial and exploration of the heartland. See this and its landmark companion short, Tire Dié, which shows real families struggling to stay afloat while their children risk falling under moving train wheels to grab coins from passengers. Both are outstanding examples of humanistic, politically engaged cinema. (Frako Loden)
Sunday, April 28, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

May (U.S.A., 2002)

A memorable ad campaign for a fast-food chain's chicken nuggets declared that "parts is parts," but the obsessive, socially inept May (Angela Bettis) begs to differ. When her clumsy attempt to strike up a relationship with a hunky body-shop worker (Jeremy Sisto) ends badly, our deranged heroine sets her sights on his lovely hands. May's lesbian co-worker at an animal hospital has a pretty neck; how long will she keep it before she obliviously offends May? This airless, low-budget chiller is creepy fun for a while, as it subverts and mocks May's demented hijinks with a grab bag of absurdist chuckles. (The running joke is that people keep telling May they "like weird," until they get a taste of her outré behavior and revise their standards accordingly.) But May gradually settles into the overly measured pace of a self-important American indie feature, as if writer/director Lucky McKee were delivering a treatise on the pain of friendship and the peril of solitude. Too bad he didn't opt to wring each bloody laugh out of everybody's greatest fear -- that a person with whom we're superficially acquainted will turn out to be Psycho No. 1. (Michael Fox)
Sunday, April 28, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Pinochet Case (France/Spain/Belgium, 2001)

Nominee for the Golden Gate Award's grand prize in documentary, this superb work details the 1998 attempts to extradite Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990, from London so that he can stand trial back home. Pinochet's long, Nazi-inspired "Night and Fog" of torture, murder, and forced disappearance of citizens is recalled movingly and oddly hearteningly by survivors and victims' family members. Meanwhile, an inspiring team of Spanish, Chilean, and British lawyers and legislators builds a case that could not have been assembled in Chile alone. Footage of a friendly meeting between Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher reveals the support for his reign of terror by other governments, while trips through mass graves and torture chambers like the horrific Villa Grimaldi are mute testaments to political persecution and fear of democracy. Here, "globalization" means a multinational quest for justice, and it's a crowd-pleaser. (Frako Loden)
Monday, April 29, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 30, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., PFA

Smokers Only (Argentina, 2001)

This stylish but insubstantial movie centers on the dubious hookup between a Rollerblading street hustler and a wannabe rock chanteuse. Andres is just filling time, while Reni is (foolishly) trying to fill a void; they barely have a "thing," let alone a love affair. Yet she says, "I don't want to forget you." Andres' loving response: "I don't want to miss you." First-time director Veronica Chen finds Reni's neediness endlessly fascinating, and so augments her characters' nocturnal milieu with barely a glimmer of social context (and that's if you interpret the carefully framed golden arches as a comment on globalization). Given the lack of plot and the absence of any illuminating details about Buenos Aires, it's some kind of miracle that Chen manages to sustain interest for most of her tale's 87 portentous minutes. Failing to muster any insights into an amoral generation that has nothing to sell but its youth -- and no shortage of buyers -- Smokers Only is a prettified tour of the gutter. (Michael Fox)
Friday, April 26, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 27, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Stalin: Red God (U.K./Austria, 2001)

Frederick Baker's fascinating hourlong documentary records a Russia still in shock over Joseph Stalin's murderous one-man rule, some 50 years after the fact. "There was no appeal against whether he punished or pardoned you," says a 100-year-old cartoonist for Pravda, whose brother was killed on the dictator's order. "If God exists is uncertain, but we know that Stalin did exist and he was right there next to us." Baker's thesis is that a deified spirit of Stalin hovers over Russia even today, and while he finds scattered evidence for this idea in places like the Georgian's hometown, where children recite poetry in Stalin's memory and townspeople exhume old statues of him, the idea's more asserted than proved. Baker offers no systematic look at today's Russia. Even the stronger parts of his film -- the recollections of aged witnesses to Stalin's rule -- are weakened by his failure to identify them properly (the cartoonist's age is given in the press notes, but not in the film). A soundtrack made up of eerie ambient noise is annoying, and Baker's dramatic re-creations of incidents in the dictator's life are shaky. (His use of mute doubles of Stalin could be justified by Stalin's own fondness for films about himself, with ennobled actors playing him, but no Socialist Realist cinéaste ever used hand-held cameras!) Nonetheless, Stalin: Red God is essential viewing for anyone interested in the pathology of state terror; the Soviet Union under his rule was both charnel house and chapel. (Gregg Rickman)
Thursday, April 25, 5:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 28, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki


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