For your consideration: Short takes from SFIFF, week one

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Ver-sighs: 'Farewell, My Queen'

The gargantuan San Francisco Film Festival opens this week after a particularly fraught year in which the San Francisco Film Society tragically lost two well-respected executive directors. But never fear! SFIFF is still tops, and we're here to guide you through it, from throught-provoking experimental flicks to unheralded-as-of-yet crowd-friendly fare. We've rustled upmore than a dozen previews of appealing flicks after the jump -- and check out our complete coverage, including indepth features and interviews, here.

THU/19

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter's loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen's retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen's quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. Farewell, My Queen screens as part of the SFIFF's opening night festivities, which are dedicated to the memory of SF Film Society executive director Graham Leggat. Thu/19, 7pm, Castro. (Lynn Rapoport 

 

FRI/20

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011) Just under an hour, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt's Portuguese curiosity is hardly fettered by the limits of time, let alone imagination. Its wayward story focuses on two precocious young female cousins whose closeness goes south when their beloved grandmother dies, leaving them rivals for her estate. Before that happens, however, this fabulist curio hits a deadpan peak in an extended medieval dream sequence that pits punitive Catholic Church against happy sodomites — ah, some things never change. Fri/20, 6pm; Sat/21, 7pm; April 26, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2011) Korean auteur (Woman Is the Future of Man, 2004) Hong Sang-soo's latest exercise in self-consciousness, this black-and-white, fable-like study of a frustrated filmmaker (Yu Jun-sang), returning home to Seoul to visit an old friend after spending time in the countryside teaching, adds up to a kind of formal palimpsest. Surrounded by sycophants, vindictive former leading men, and women who seem to serve a purely semiotic purpose, he participates in an endless loop of drink, smoke, and conversation in a series of dreamlike scenes that play on the theme of coincidence and endless variation. Hong's layering of alternate scenarios at times feels like a bit of a gimmick, but the way he infuses specific urban spaces with forlorn significance in mostly static shots is affecting — even if the film's ultimate narrative slightness has the cut-and-paste haphazardness of fridge poetry magnets. Fri/20, 7:15pm; Mon/23, 9:30pm, Kabuki. April 25, 9pm, PFA. (Michelle Devereaux)

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/France, 2011) Yorgos Lanthimos is well on his way to a reputation for sick yet oddly charming high-concept spectacles. Here, a group calling themselves Alps offers substitution services for the recently bereaved — that's right, they'll play your dead loved one to fill that hole in your life. Pitch-black comic moments abound, and the sensibility that made 2009's Dogtooth so thrilling is distinctly present here, if not quite as fresh. Beyond the absurd logline, the plot is rather more conventional: things get out of hand when Alps member Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter from Dogtooth) gets too invested in one of her assignments, and the power structure of Alps turns on her. If Alps is not exactly a revelation, it's still a promising entry in a quickly blossoming auteur's body of work. Fri/20, 9pm, FSC. Sat/21, 2:30pm; Tue/24, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Sam Stander)

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, U.S., 2012) Biggie Smalls' track is just a smart starting point for this streetwise, hilarious debut feature by Adam Leon. Young graf artists Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are hustling hard to get paid and fund a valiant effort to tag the Mets' Home Run Apple to show up rival gang-bangers. The problem lies in raising the exorbitant fee their source demands, either by hook (selling pot to seductive, rich white girls) or crook (offloading cell phone contraband). The absurdity of the pair's situation isn't lost on anyone, especially Leon. But their passion to rise above (sorta) and yearning for expression gives the tale an emotional heft. Arriving with much post-SXSW buzz, Gimme the Loot stays with you long after the taggers have moved onto fresh walls. Fri/20, 9:15pm, Kabuki. Sat/21, 9:30pm, FSC. Tue/24, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Kimberly Chun)

 

SAT/21

Choked (Kim Joong-hyun, South Korea, 2011) Baby, it’s cold outside: urban Seoul is the site of this debut feature by Kim Joong-hyun, but those familiar with the dog-eat-dog realities of getting ahead in the modern world, in any country, will recognize this unrelenting indictment of capitalism. In the de-centered middle of a financial mess left behind by his AWOL mom, the striving, good-looking Youn-ho (Um Tae-goo) holds down an unsavory job, evicting tenants for developers, to raise funds to support his materialistic fiancée. He’s under assault from his mother’s creditors, including her desperate divorcee friend who peddles black-market doodads. Moments of grace — and instances of human connection — are few and far between in this scorched emotional landscape of so-called bad mothers, where unselfish tenderness is scarce and money speaks volumes, and Kim’s smart, humanistic perspective won’t let you tear your eyes away. Sat/21, 1:30pm; April 28, 6pm; May 1, 9pm, Kabuki. (Chun)

Dreileben — Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2011) Originally made for German TV, the Dreileben trio is ideally viewed in order, one right after the other (SFIFF offers that option on two different days). It's worth blocking off time to see all three, for maximum enjoyment of this tense, offbeat crime series; made by different directors, the films — which take place in a small town surrounded by fairy-tale forests containing monsters both real and imagined — link together in unexpected ways. The first entry, Beats Being Dead, focuses on nursing student Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), whose carelessness allows a convicted murderer to escape, and whose recklessness allows him to romance stormy hotel maid Ana (Luna Mijovic), while still pining for his rich, princessy ex (Vijessna Ferkic). Seldom has young love been portrayed so realistically — or set amid such an atmosphere of bucolic foreboding. Sat/21, 1:30pm; Tue/24, 9:45pm; April 29, 2:45, Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)

Bitter Seeds (Micha X. Peled, U.S., 2011) Just what we all needed: more incontrovertible evidence of the bald-faced evil of Monsanto. This documentary on destitute Indian cotton farmers follows an 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, a budding journalist who investigates the vast numbers of farmer suicides since the introduction (and market stranglehold) of "BT" cotton — which uses the corporation's proprietary GMO technology — in the region of Vidarbha. Before BT took over in 2004, these cotton farmers relied on cheap heritage seed fertilized only by cow dung, but the largely illiterate population fell prey to Monsanto's marketing blitz and false claims, purchasing biotech seed that resulted in pesticide reliance, failing crops, and spiraling debt. It's a truly heartbreaking and infuriating story, but much of the action feels stagey and false. Should Indian formality be blamed? Considering the same fate befell Peled's 2005 documentary China Blue, probably not. Still, eff Monsanto. Sat/21, 3:45pm, FSC. Tues/24, 8:50pm, PFA. April 26, 6:15pm, Kabuki. (Devereaux)

The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks, U.S., 2011) Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. Sat/21, 3:50pm, PFA. April 30, 1pm; May 1, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Dreileben — Don't Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf, Germany, 2011) The second Dreileben film offers a shift in tone and style; it's more of a procedural (but only sorta), and is the only trilogy entry shot on 16mm. Police psychologist Jo (Jeanette Hain) — her full name, Johanna, mirrors that of the first film's Johannes — is summoned to Dreileben, ostensibly to help local cops track the murderous escapee (and, it would seem, taste the local cuisine, what with the endless dining scenes). But just when you start anticipating Jo slamming the cuffs on the murderer, you realize this story's really about Jo's relationship with estranged BFF Vera (Susanne Wolff), who invites Jo to stay at her crumbling country house while working on the case. When the women realize they unwittingly dated the same man years ago, old resentments bubble quickly to the surface. Plus: the pursuit of the killer, with the help of a chainsaw artist. Sat/21, 4pm; April 25, 6:15pm; April 29, 5pm, Kabuki. (Eddy)

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, U.S., 2011) Matthew Akers’ sleek and telling doc explores the career and motivations of the legendary Serbian-born, New York-based performance artist on the occasion of 2010’s major retrospective and new work at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Abramović, self-styled the “grandmother of performance art” at an eye-catching 63, steels herself with rare energy — and a determination to gain equal status for performance in the world of fine art — for an incredibly demanding new piece, The Artist Is Present, a quasi-mystical encounter between herself and individual museum patrons that takes the form of a three-month marathon of silent one-on-one gazing. Meanwhile, 30 young artists re-perform pieces from her influential career. Akers gains intimate access throughout, including Abramović’s touching reunion with longtime love and artistic collaborator Ulay, while providing a steady pulse of suspense as the half-grueling, half-ecstatic performance gets underway. A natural charmer, Abramović’s charismatic presence at MoMA is no act but rather a focused state in which audiences are drawn into — and in turn shape — powerful rhythms of consciousness and desire. Sat/21, 4:15pm; April 28, 3:30pm, Kabuki. April 29, 5:40pm, PFA. (Robert Avila)

Dreileben — One Minute of Darkness (Christoph Hochhäusler, Germany, 2011) In part three, Molesch (Stefan Kurt), the muddy man we've seen skulking around the edges of the first two films, finally comes into focus. Early on, we learn his murder conviction was based on circumstantial evidence — a surveillance camera marred by "one minute of darkness" at a crucial moment. As veteran detective Kirchberg (Marcus Kreil), the Tommy Lee Jones to Molesch's Harrison Ford, pursues his prey (while reconsidering the man's guilt), the fugitive hides out in the woods, playing childlike alphabet games and absconding with lunches packed by passing hikers. But we've been waiting for the dark twist since part one's cliffhanger — resolved here, though the events do not neatly align with what's come before. The only conclusion: in Dreileben, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Sat/21, 6:30pm; April 26, 9:45pm; April 29, 7:15pm, Kabuki. (Eddy) 

Bernie (Richard Linklater, U.S., 2011) Jack Black plays the titular new assistant funeral director liked by everybody in small-town Carthage, Tex. He works especially hard to ingratiate himself with shrewish local widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), but there are benefits — estranged from her own family, she not only accepts him as a friend (then companion, then servant, then as virtual "property"), but makes him her sole heir. Richard Linklater's latest is based on a true-crime story, although in execution it's as much a cheerful social satire as I Love You Philip Morris and The Informant! (both 2009), two other recent fact-based movies about likable felons. Black gets to sing (his character being a musical theater queen, among other things), while Linklater gets to affectionately mock a very different stratum of Lone Star State culture from the one he started out with in 1991's Slacker. There's a rich gallery of supporting characters, most played by little-known local actors or actual townspeople, with Matthew McConaughey's vainglorious county prosecutor one delectable exception. Bernie is its director's best in some time, not to mention a whole lot of fun. Sat/21, 9:30pm, Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

SUN/22

Will (Ellen Perry, England/France/Turkey, 2011) A far cry from director Ellen Perry's 2005 political doc The Fall of Fujimori, this sweet-twee tale follows the adventures of a newly orphaned 11-year-old (Perry Eggleton) who slips away from his nun-run boarding school to attend a Very Important Soccer Game. Improbably kind strangers — including a taciturn Serb (Kristian Kiehling) with a troubled past — help guide Will on his journey. Tears are shed, life lessons are learned, etc. The one thing saving Will from drowning in its own sap is its enthusiastic, endearing embrace of European football culture; the game that Will (a diehard Liverpool supporter) is hellbent on attending is the 2005 Champions League Final. For LFC fans smarting over the current season, Will is a must-see: "You'll Never Walk Alone" soars, and Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and "King Kenny" Dalglish make cameos. Sun/22, 11:30am; May 1, 6pm, Kabuki. (Eddy)

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, U.S., 2011) Terence Nance's first feature might remind you of Barry Jenkins' 2008 Medicine for Melancholy, in that it's an ambivalent love story between two young African Americans that owes more the restive, intellectually curious, meta-cinema feel of the Nouvelle Vague than more contemporary U.S. cinema. The big differences are that Nance's vision is both explicitly autobiographical and largely animated. He charts and muses upon an on-off relationship in stream-of-consciousness terms that encompass everything from the summary of a Louise Erdrich novel to an earlier-film-within-the-film (and a Q&A session that occurred after its screening). This kind of structureless navel-gazing can get tired, and indeed Beauty might ideally be experienced in sections rather than over one long haul. But still, just about any chosen few minutes are as clever and inventive as could be. Sun/22, 8:30pm, PFA. April 30, 9pm; May 1, 12:15pm; May 2, 4pm, Kabuki. (Harvey) 

 

MON/23

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, U.S., 2012) When the carelessness of self-absorbed surgeon Joseph (Kevin Kline) results in the stray dog adopted by Beth (Diane Keaton) going missing during a forest walk, that event somehow brings all the fissures in their long marriage to a crisis point. Big Chill (1983) director Lawrence Kasdan's first feature in a decade hews back to the more intimate, character-based focus of his best films. But this dramedy is too often shrilly pitched and overly glossy (it seems to take place in a Utah vacation-themed L.L. Bean catalog), with numerous talented actors — including Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, and Sam Shepard — playing superficially etched characters that merely add to the clutter. Most cringe-inducing among them is Ayelet Zurer's Carmen, a woman of Roma extraction who apparently has a crystal ball in her psychic head and actually speaks lines like "My people have a saying...." Mon/23, 6:45pm; Tue/24, noon, Kabuki. (Harvey)

TUE/24

Target (Alexander Zeldovich, Russia/German, 2011) The year is 2020, and a group of disaffected upper-class Russians make a pilgrimage to an energy accumulator known as the Target, which halts aging, among other effects. The setting is an unsettlingly believable near-future culture based on standardized “ratings” for each member of society and an escalated fixation on age and appearance. What follows the transmutation of these five characters is an operatic mess of love, adultery, debauchery, and violence. It’s a weird admixture of philosophical science fiction, social satire, and intense character drama. In some ways, its closest relative is the bloated Wim Wenders dystopia Until the End of the World (1991), but its absurdities are more calculated and its acting more grounded. Complete with nods to Anna Karenina and Top Chef, it’s a consuming entertainment with consistently surprising creative choices. Tue/24, 2:30pm; April 27, 10pm, Kabuki. (Stander)

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 19-May 3; most shows $13. Venues: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; and Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post, SF. More info at www.sffs.org.

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