SFIFF: Highway 51

A road map to the 51st SF International Film Festival
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THURS/24

The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France/Italy, 2007) Catherine Breillat steps back from one of her bluntest provocations — 2006's Anatomy of Hell — to deliver this barbed, intelligent adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's 1851 novel. Asia Argento is heroic as the titular courtesan, a seething, powerful woman working outside bourgeoisie bounds. On the eve of his marriage to a suitably chaste maiden, Mick Jagger–lipped Ryno de Maginy (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) narrates his decades-long affair with the magnetic mistress — telling the tale to his fiancée's grandmother, who is rapt. An intriguing cocktail of classical framing and modern malaise, The Last Mistress is Breillat's best work in years — not least of all because of her clear affection for the material. (Max Goldberg)

7 p.m., Castro.

FRI/25

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2007) Alexandra's 70-something title figure (Galina Vishnevskaya) takes the laborious journey to Chechnya, where the grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) she hasn't seen in seven years is stationed at a large army base. This latest by Russian master Sokurov isn't exactly narrative-driven, but it's one of his least abstract, most emotionally direct works. In her first film role, opera veteran Vishnevskaya doesn't need to sing to etch a character whose long-suffering indomitableness is Mother Courage as Mother Russia. (Dennis Harvey)

7 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, noon, Kabuki; May 4, 4:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Black Belt (Shunichi Nagasaki, Japan, 2007) Hai karate! Ably armed with authentic martial arts aces in lead roles, auteur Nagasaki transforms his masterful piece of genre filmmaking into a parable, set on the eve of World War II, about the use of power and the wisdom of passive resistance. Black Belt trounces typical CG kung fu: that the actors are karate masters gives the film a texture of authenticity unseen since the days of Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, lending weight to thoughts and deeds. (Kimberly Chun)

8:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki

Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, England, 2007) Adapted from Monica Ali's 2003 novel, Brick Lane is a clichéd, romantic, finding-one's-home story. Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) submits herself to the unexciting life of pre-arranged marriage until she meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), who sweeps her off her feet. One of the most aggravating things about the film is that Nazneen finds the power to take charge of her life through her affair alone. Apparently her daughter's constant plea for Nazneen to start verbalizing her will was of secondary importance. (Maria Komodore)

7:15 p.m., Kabuki.

The Golem with Black Francis (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, Germany, 1920) An original score composed and played live by the Pixies' leader is a mighty enticement, but even without it this classic 1920 German silent would be worth seeing. Drawn from medieval Jewish folklore, it tells of a rabbi's creation of a clay man to protect the ethnic ghetto from a Christian emperor's heavy hand. Codirected by Wegener, one of the masters of cinematic German expressionism (who also plays the golem), it's an impressive, strikingly designed mix of horror, history, and political commentary. (Harvey)

9:30 p.m., Castro.

Just Like Home (Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2007) Dogme95 filmmaker Scherfig hones her flair for bittersweet comedy with this goofily enjoyable ensemble piece about a misfit small town that falls into chaos.

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