April 24, 2002




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Picture this

Short takes on the S.F. International Film Festival's second week


25 Watts (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Uruguay) Stranger than paradise, Montevideo, Uruguay, also comes across as a carefree, trebly relative of Slacker's Austin, Texas, in this sun-bleached black-and-white first feature. Directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll specialize in cockeyed points of view, some casually literal – shots aimed between the open knees of three sit-around stooges – some genuinely inventive. Professional loiterer Leche (Daniel Hendler) walks off a convenience-store monitor into the rest of the frame; after a foiled romantic phone call, his reflection drowns in a glass of water. Akin to its lead trio, 25 Watts doesn't have to work hard or look far to find laughs – at home, Leche's zombie grandma is moved around like a useless piece of furniture, and Erik Estrada pitches diet powder on pirated cable. 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Fri/26, 2 p.m., Kabuki; Sat/27, 9:15 p.m., New PFA Theater. (Johnny Ray Huston)


Stalin: Red God (Frederick Baker, United Kingdom/Austria) Nearly a half century after Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced him and (in a pattern Khrushchev's predecessor had perfected) erased his visage from the national landscape, a crowd of Georgians in Joseph Stalin's hometown of Tiflis resurrect an enormous statue of the fallen dictator from an unceremonious grave. It's an apt image for a film more concerned with the construction of a myth than with the biography of a man. In a quirky and haphazard style that greatly benefits from a brilliant soundtrack, filmmaker Frederick Baker uses archival footage, rare sound recordings, and contemporary interviews (including one with Stalin's grandson) to explore the tenacity of Stalin's hold on the imagination of the former Soviet Union. The film's thesis – that Stalin achieved his godlike status by appropriating the aura of the repressed Russian Orthodox Church – is oversimplification at best, but it reflects something of Stalin's genius for reinventing himself. The film's real strength lies not in its historical excavations (where it digs no deeper than those Georgian statue-snatchers) but in its ability to add an idiosyncratic, personal dimension to a complex and bizarre social phenomenon. And if the analysis of Stalin worship is superficial, the phenomenon itself certainly bears consideration, especially as it continues to this day not just in Tiflis but also on the streets of Moscow. Plays with "Copy Shop." 5:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/28, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Robert Avila)


In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France) Touted as a "return to form," Jean-Luc Godard's latest will disappoint anyone expecting youthful energy: this film may have the 60s blues, but in this case "60s" refers to Godard's age, not the 20th century's. Death is no longer offhandedly depicted – it's pondered in tones of dread. He may return to the streets of Paris, but he still privileges philosophy over narrative: Balzac, Bresson, Weil, and Hugo aid him in building a convoluted, curmudgeonly mental maze. Technology is accused of erasing history, Steven Spielberg is charged with exploiting Schindler's widow, and America's titanic beauty is attacked for being nameless and amnesiac. As dreamlike cinematography shifts from black and white to color, the question "What is an adult?" is repeatedly asked. Though the clock seems to be winding down, an answer never arrives. 7 p.m., New PFA Theater. Also Sun/28, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. (Huston)

The Ruination of Men (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico/Spain) Filmmaker Arturo Ripstein has plumbed the depths of some sad, sordid grotesqueries in his day, but he may have outdone himself with this Beckett-gone-rancid absurdist yelp. Two men set upon a third and murder him with a rock. Later one of the killers transports the cadaver back home, where the deceased's wife breaks his legs and forces him to suck her toes (Ripstein's early tenure with Luis Buñuel obviously left quite an impression). Then a flashback connects the dots between characters, various inanimate objects, and one bad game of baseball. Given the title, taken from a traditional Mexican lyric – "The ruination of men / Is damned women!" – it's tempting to peg this as one blistering look at cultural machismo. In Ripstein's hands, however, this acidic satire refuses to simply indict a gender when hypocrisy, hubris, and curdled dreams are also vying for MVP in the divine black comedy known as life. 9:15 p.m., New PFA Theater. Also Sun/28, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/30, 7 p.m., Park. (David Fear)


Derrida (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, USA/France) "Deconstruction is not a sitcom," Jacques "Jackie" Derrida sternly tells a foolish, flinching TV interviewer who likens his practice to Jerry Seinfeld's. But this doc proves Derrida isn't a cold machine; he's a man with an ordinary sense of humor and a profound sense of melancholy. Passages from his books receive precious, earnest recitations by a narrator. Derrida himself speaks and thinks with practical clarity. When the directors closely scrutinize the philosopher as he butters a breakfast muffin at home, Derrida says, "This is what you call cinéma vérité? Everything is false. [Normally] I don't get dressed, I stay in my pajamas and bathrobe." Derrida trivia: he has some Anne Rice books, but he hasn't read them. Favorite unintentionally funny quote: "I've written a lot about my mother's kidney stone." 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/28, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Huston)

Fulltime Killer (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, Hong Kong) Since 1997 or so, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai have been making whip-smart films in a dead-end genre. Previous works by the pair (The Mission, Running Out of Time) came chock-full of dueling homoerotic hit men and haggard cops drawn into uneasy alliances with their prey – in short, the gamut of John Woo's old-school Hong Kong gunplay clichés. Now they're broadening the palate to include allusions to Point Break and Alain Delon (as well as referring occasionally to their own filmography) with Fulltime Killer, which plays like a unabashed love letter to international action cinema. Hunky Andy Lau is an epileptic, movie-quoting professional killer trapped in a long-standing rivalry with Takashi Sorimachi. Video-store clerk Kelly Lin gets involved with both parties while a hilariously unhinged Simon Yam hunts the bad boys down, only to wind up chronicling their story with a typewriter and nervous tics. To and Wai never make the material entirely fresh again, but their self-deprecating tweaks and insidious quirks keep the fun and entertainment factors on the high end of the scale. 2 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/28, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Patrick Macias)

Tribute (Kris Curry and Rich Fox, USA) Anyone requiring proof that the subculture of professional tribute bands deserves more than Wahlbergian star-vehicle status? Here's Exhibit A: Tribute, Kris Curry and Rich Fox's funny, frightening, and fascinating look at four bands (Queen imitators Sheer Heart Attack, Kiss wanna-bes Larger than Life, a small-town Judas Priest cover group, and some feuding Monkees devotees) vying for "next best thing" status. Like many post-American Movie documentaries, the film invites both mockery and sympathy for those who want to turn fantasy, fandom, and the sincerest form of flattery into semi-stardom; you're never sure whether to laugh at the incredible (and often incompetent) devotion to re-creation on display or admire the subjects' indomitable pluck. Thanks to Fox and Curry's deft touch, even Tribute's moments of ridicule mine emotional pay dirt. 4:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/30, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Fear)

Truly Human (Ake Sandgren, Denmark) Another unvarnished entry from the Dogma camp, Truly Human explores the weirdness that occurs when Lisa, a young daughter to busy, stressed-out parents, dies suddenly and her heretofore imaginary friend emerges into the world in the form of an awkward, socially inept teenager. Etiquette foibles and childlike incomprehension of basic skills (brushing teeth, drinking from a glass) give way to unsettling moments born of the young man's complete ignorance of social mores – most, like the scene in which he jumps into a swimming pool full of kids, buck-naked, lead a variety of people in his Copenhagen hood to think him a rampant child molester. Though the wayward lad has clearly been sent to soothe Lisa's grieving parents, the film's many scenes of tragic misunderstandings make the road to recovery one that's uncomfortable to watch. 4:45 p.m., New PFA Theater. Also Mon/29, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki; Wed/1, 7 p.m., Park. (Cheryl Eddy)


Failan (Song Hye-Sung, South Korea) Grab a box of tissues – this two-fisted Korean melodrama is out to make sure you use all of them. A two-bit gangster (Shiri's Choi Min-Shik) hastily weds a waiflike Chinese immigrant in need of immigration papers (Cecelia Cheung, trying her best to be mistaken for Maggie Cheung) for the money. Tragically, she dies before he even meets her, and he goes through a profound psychological transformation while sifting through the pieces of her short, sad life. This would be a textbook weepy date movie if not for the jarring hot-blooded gangland beatdowns that occur every five minutes during the first half. As it stands, imagine if Mean Streets morphed into Sweet November. If the mood swings feel too jarring, or the drawn-out finale too manipulative, there is still much pleasure to be had as Song Hye-Sung's direction beautifully captures the detritus of Asian city life and the slightly more pastoral day-to-day grind of a windswept coastal town. 6:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/29, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Macias)

Hell House (George Ratliff, USA) "Abortion girl! Whoo! Got it!" says a blond cheerleader. She's elated to be cast as a sinner headed for a date with Satan, and the director of the lucrative "theater" where she'll be performing just happens to be her father. This doc watches – from start to finish – an annual event in Cedar Hill, Texas, put on by the Trinity Church: a haunted house where the horrors are drunk driving, school shooting, raver rape, and of course, homo-sax-y'all-ity. A Jack Chick tract come to life, Hell House is loaded with thudding ironies: a teen girl says "not having sex was drilled into me," and all the Christian thespians – especially the "rave DJ" – zealously enact the transgressions they're condemning. A more subtle irony: the film's subjects have better production values and technical skill than the filmmakers. Nevertheless, Hell House is grimly comic and Southern Gothic. 7:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/30, 1 p.m., Kabuki; Wed/1, 10 p.m., Kabuki. (Huston)


A Chronicle of Corpses (Andrew Repasky McElhinney, USA) A prime contender for the fest's weirdest film, 23-year-old Andrew Repasky McElhinney's third low-budget feature fuses Andy Milligan's incestuous, murderous historical horror to a near-silent, restrained classicism that definitely isn't Milligan-like and that might belong to McElhinney alone. The lyrics of Stephin Merritt seem perky in comparison to the doom-laden, intentionally stilted religious soliloquies this writer-director crafts for a once-wealthy family isolated on a decaying plantation. Slowly and showily tracking through oppressive, humid exteriors and dark, shadowed interiors, Chronicle isn't bloody in the literal sense, but midway through, when one bald character suddenly dispatches another, the image is shocking and memorable. 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/30, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. (Huston)


Go (Isao Yukisada, Japan/South Korea) The blood- and tear-drenched Failan's split personality is rivaled by Isao Yukisada's Go, which blazes through slapstick action-flick violence before its wise ass is kicked by weepy melodrama. As in Failan, the tonal shift accompanies a protagonist whose masculinity gets a feminine education. Go's treatment of Japanese and South Korean cultural conflict is simplified into coming-of-age terms via lead character Sugihara (Yosuke Kubozuka). Yukisada worked under Shunji Iwai, but if he shares Iwai's poor (overlong) pacing, he also has Iwai's flash, and he isn't quite as careless in terms of style, or as indulgent and humorless about teen narcissism. 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Thurs/2, 9:15 p.m., New PFA Theater. (Huston)


Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili, Iran/Japan) Delbaran, a small desert town in Iran not far from Afghanistan, is the setting of this artful and unsentimental tale of a 14-year-old Afghan refugee named Kaim, who works for the proprietor of a remote roadside café and service station. The spare landscape – peopled only by the occasional traveler, smuggler, or opium smoker – reflects the remoteness of a childhood lived among adults with little familial affection. As war rages only a few miles away, the local policeman's hunt for illegal Afghan workers presents only the most immediate danger for Kaim. Written and directed by veteran filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili, the film, in its compositional quality, naturalism, and expert use of nonprofessional actors, brings to mind Abbas Kiarostami's work, while the subject matter reflects the concerns of other recent Iranian films, especially Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar and Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses. 9:15 p.m., Castro. Also Thurs/2, 7 p.m., New PFA Theater. (Avila)

For a complete schedule of the San Francisco International Film Festival's second week, see First Runs, in Film listings.