SFIFF, day eight: Bed, bath and beyond the ordinary

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love the festival's crazy Late Show selections, but sometimes I miss them. Luckily, Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales screened for a third time on Wednesday afternoon. It's very reminiscent of John Cassavetes' 1974 The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but not as focused. (Ferrara's style is even more rambling.)

Willem Dafoe plays Ray Ruby, a man living his dream by running a strip club. The trouble is that the club is failing, the girls haven't been paid and Ray loves to blow all his money on lotto tickets. A series of miniature dramas play out over the course of one night. Old friends stop in, new customers come and go, strippers dance and complain, and a man tries to sell organic hot dogs! A tanning booth explodes, nearly burning down the joint. The abrasive landlady (the great Sylvia Miles) shows up, threatening to let Bed, Bath and Beyond move in. A stripper called Monroe (Asia Argento) brings in her dog, which gets in the way. (She uses the dog in her act, and more or less makes out with him on stage.)

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Bed, bath and beyond, baby!: The peerless Sylvia Miles with Go Go Tales director Abel Ferrara

Many other familiar faces -- and a few Ferrara regulars -- turn up: Matthew Modine, Bob Hoskins, Burt Young, Pras (from the Fugees) and more. Part of the pleasure of Go Go Tales is watching all these miniature stories begin and end, or wondering whether they begin at all. Some of the most striking images never go anywhere plot-wise, while some of the most mundane turn into drama. Certain events are so astonishingly ludicrous that you have to laugh at their audacity.

Ferrara photographs the action with shapes and blurs passing through the foreground, as if he secretly captured everything from across the street. He also utilizes security monitors and poorly-lit offices and rooms. He may be a crackpot, but he's one of the last great American mavericks, crazy and aggravating to the point that he has alienated nearly all the American studios. His last several films have been financed (and primarily distributed) overseas, and SFIFF’s print of Go Go Tales came complete with French subtitles. I sat near the front of the theater, and someone next to me wondered if we weren't too close for this particular movie.

Jiri Menzel won the SFIFF's directing award back in 1990 (when it was known as the Akira Kurosawa award), and he's best known for his Czech new wave masterpiece Closely Watched Trains (1966). The first hour or so of his new film I Served the King of England (his first feature since 1994) comes close to capturing that film's magic, fleet-footed yet politically-charged tone. It's about a waiter who learns life lessons while working in pubs and ritzy hotels. But as soon as World War II breaks out, Menzel can no longer balance speed and humor with atrocity, and the film slows down and becomes unbearably heavy. Ernst Lubitsch pulled off this impossible combo with To Be or Not to Be (1942). Menzel at least comes close.

Jiri Menzel returns with I Served the King of England

Animator Faith Hubley also won a festival award (Persistence of Vision, in 2000), and her daughter Emily is making her feature debut with The Toe Tactic, a quirky romantic comedy with animated interludes. It's passably cute, and intriguingly disconnected, but to put it plainly, I liked it better when it was called Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Finally, Jay Chou's Secret screens on Friday and Sunday, and while I can't say it's the best movie I've seen, it's probably my favorite; it's the one I've been telling everyone to see. I'm dying to talk more about it. But as the title indicates, the less said, the better.

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