What to watch - Page 2

The Guardian staff's short takes on the San Francisco International Film Fest's must-sees

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Kelly Reichardt's new frontier story Meek's Cutoff tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism

I'm Glad My Mother is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France, 2009) Codirected with his son Nathan, this latest by veteran French director Claude Miller is an about-face from his acclaimed 2007 period epic A Secret. Viscerally up-to-the-moment in content and handheld-camera style, it's a small story that builds toward an enormous punch. Thomas (played by Maxime Renard as a child, then Vincent Rottiers) is a lifelong malcontent whose troubles are rooted in his abandonment at age five by an irresponsible mother (Sophie Cattani). Neither the attentions of well-meaning adoptive parents or the influence of his better-adjusted younger brother can quell Thomas' mix of furious resentment and curiosity toward his mere, whom he finally develops a relationship with as a young adult. As usual, Miller doesn't "explain" his characters or let them explain themselves, yet everything feels emotionally true — right up to a narrative destination both that feels both shocking and inevitable. Fri/22, 6:45 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S., 2010) After three broke down road movies (1994's River of Grass, 2006's Old Joy, 2008's Wendy and Lucy), Kelly Reichardt's new frontier story tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism. It's 1845 on the choked plains of Oregon, miles from the fertile valley where a wagon train of three families is headed. They've hired the rogue guide Meek to show them the way, but he's got them lost and low on water. When the group captures a Cayeuse Indian, Solomon proposes they keep him on as a compass; Meek thinks it better to hang him and be done with it. The periodic shots of the men deliberating are filmed from a distance — the earshot range of the three women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson) who set up camp each night. It's through subtle moves like these that Meek's Cutoff gives a vivid taste of being subject to fate and, worse still, the likes of Meek. Reichardt winnows away the close-ups, small talk, and music that provided the simple gifts of her earlier work, and the overall effect is suitably austere. Fri/22, 9 p.m., and Mon/25, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Max Goldberg)

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, U.S., 2010) Not gonna lie — the reason I wanted to review this one was because of the film still in the SFIFF catalog. Rotten-faced vampire with a stake through its neck? Yes, please! But while Jim Mickle's apocalyptic road movie does offer plenty of gore, it's more introspective than one might expect, following an orphaned teenage boy, Martin (Connor Paolo, Serena's little bro on Gossip Girl), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Snake Plissken-ish Nick Damici), on their travels through a ravaged America. As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, vampires, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, including a nun played by Kelly McGillis), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn't throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it's beautifully shot and doesn't hold back on the brutality. Larry Fessenden (director of 2006's The Last Winter) produced and has a brief cameo as a helpful bartender. Fri/22, 11:30 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)