Weekend at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I spent last weekend at the San Francisco International Film Festival; Saturday at the Kabuki and Sunday at the Castro. I had a wonderful time.

On Monday I told you about Adam’s Apples, Iberia, Play, and Obaba; all films that were reshown this week. Now I’ll fill you in on the rest.

I broke my own “don’t see films at festivals you can see later” rule and caught Who Killed the Electric Car, a movie that will open in theaters in June. I’m glad I did. In the mid-90’s, General Motors released an electric car so wonderful that Chris Paine made this documentary about it. But GM leased these cars rather than selling them, and let very few people get their hands on one. Then they pulled the plug (so to speak) on the entire line; not only ceasing production but also reclaiming all such cars in use.

Paine turns all of this into an informative yet breezy activist documentary. Interview subjects include a GM saleswoman turned activist, NIMH battery inventor Stanley Ovshinsky, and several movie stars who were among the few people GM would lease these cars to (this may be the only progressive documentary with a positive image of Mel Gibson). In the end, Paine finds plenty of guilty parties, including car companies, oil companies, and the government.

After the movie, Paine and his collaborators came up for some Q&A. “When our cars were taken away,” Paine explained by way of motivation, “we waited for news on it.” The headlines never materialized, so he made the movie. One of his interview subjects, there with him, told us that Toyota and every other carmaker selling hybrids could easily convert to far more efficient plug-in hybrids; they just don’t.

The version of Who Killed the Electric Car? the Festival screened is not quite the final one. Before Sony Classics releases it in June, it will get a “slight technical update, and the sound mix will change.”

I started Sunday at Not So Quiet Silents with The Alloy Orchestra. The basic concept: short silent films with audience participation–sort of a Rocky Horror Silent Picture Show. Everyone in the audience received a paper bag with cheap, noise-making toys. Then the Alloy’s Terry Donahue gave an introductory speech, showing us how he and his two collaborators make music and sound effects from the strangest of gadgets, including a saw and a bedpan, and encouraging us to boo the villains and blow the whistles in our bags.

Few short films are as funny as the first selection, Buster Keaton’s “One Week,” a twenty-minute hoot about newlyweds building a do-it-yourself house with mislabeled parts. Fatty Arbuckle’s “Back Stage” (in which Keaton co-stars) isn’t “One Week,” but it’s still fun. The real surprise was “Dragonflies, the Baby Cries,” made in 2000 by Jane Gillooly (who is married to Alloy leader Ken Winokur). Quiet and magical, this tone-piece about kids playing in nature evoked the magic of childhood in a way that probably appealed more to adults than to real kids (my own were unable to attend).

Neither kids nor adults got carried away with the audience participation concept. Sure, there was some clapping and booing and noisemaking, but for the most part, we all seemed to prefer to watching the movies, listening to the professionals, and limiting our participation to laughing.

I closed Sunday with the Alloy Orchestra again, this time accompanying the 1925 Rudolph Valentino vehicle, The Eagle. It’s a silly melodrama, with the saving grace of not taking itself seriously. Valentino is a fun star who holds the screen well, even for a heterosexual male like me. But even a silly melodrama deserved a better resolution than the ending of The Eagle.

The new print was another disappointment. It managed to be both contrasty and soft, and had clearly come from a very scratched-up source. One thing that didn’t disappoint was the Alloy Orchestra. Their score brought the movie to life.

And the movies below may help bring you to life.

Recommended: The Conformist, Shattuck, Friday through Thursday. It takes more than good men doing nothing to create fascism. According to Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting character study, it also takes mediocre men with career ambitions. Jean-Louis Trintignant is chilling as a bland cog in the machine, ready to use his honeymoon in homicidal service to Mussolini. With Stefania Sandrelli as his not-to-bright bride and Dominique Sanda, in a star-making performance, as the object of everyone’s desire.

Recommendation: Sisters In Law, Balboa, opening Friday. In the cinéma vérité tradition, Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto’s camera simply follows two women magistrates in Cameroon, a place where the idea that women have rights is still pretty new. Although the film deals with such horrible crimes as rape and child abuse, it’s tone is upbeat; these people are making a positive difference. But this narration-free documentary could use some information to put everything in context. I wanted to find out how long Cameroon has had women judges, and why only women appeared to be the victims of crime (which isn’t to say that only men were the perpetrators).

Recommended: Capote, Elmwood, opening Friday. I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor than Truman Capote–you can’t do that voice without sounding like a broad comic impersonation. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it work in an Oscar- winning performance. The story sticks to the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood. Hoffman creates a witty and self-centered Capote, utterly unable to handle his mixed feelings about a cold-blooded killer, or the sudden literary success of his research assistant, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).

Recommended, with Reservations: A Clockwork Orange, Castro, Saturday. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the “Singin’ in the Rain” rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. As part of its Stanley Kubrick series, the Castro is playing A Clockwork Orange on a double bill with The Shining.

Recommendation: Paths of Glory, Castro, Sunday. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviously pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon–where three enlisted men are tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels–is one of the best. On a double bill with Full Metal Jacket as part of the Castro’s Stanley Kubrick series.

Recommended: The Life I Want, Aquarius, Sunday, 7:00. Two actors, a novice and a movie star, fall in love on the set of a period romance, then find themselves incompatible. Their relationship parallels the movie they’re making, but director/co-writer Giuseppe Piccioni handles this contrivance far better than Peter Ho-Sun Chan did in the superficially similar Perhaps Love. Sandra Ceccarelli and Best of Youth’s Luigi Locascio glow as the lovers; we like them even when we see them at their worst. A clear-eyed view of love, acting, and the process of movie-making. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Not Recommended: See You in Space, Kabuki, Tuesday, 8:45, Thursday, 5:45. Hungarian filmmaker Eg Veled fails to pull off an Altman-like multithreaded film about people looking for love in all the wrong places. There’s little connection between the stories, and little to care about with the characters. The one unique gimmick, a cosmonaut stuck in a space station while his marriage falls apart on Earth, fails to take off. The zero-gravity effects are the best I’ve seen since Apollo 13, but that’s not enough to recommend the movie. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I know I just mentioned the following films a few days ago, but they’re showing this week as well, so I’m including them here. Besides, this gives me a chance to polish my blurbs. All are part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommended, with Reservations: Obaba, Kabuki, Friday, 4:00; Aquarius, 9:45. No, it isn’t a typo in the name of Illinois’ junior senator. The title character of Montxo Armendáriz’ latest is a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain. A college student (Bárbara Lennie) visits Obaba (a fictional place that doesn’t exist outside of this movie) to interview people for a school assignment. She finds old rivalries, a man who loves lizards, a great-looking guy for her to fall for, and flashbacks to an earlier time when everything was shot with a golden light. There’s much to like in Obaba, including the story of a scandal-ridden teacher (Pilar López de Ayala) and some truly scary moments involving those lizards. But much of the film is silly and sentimental, and in the end, it just doesn’t add up.

Recommended: Play, Kabuki, Friday, 6:30; Wednesday, 9:45. This quiet Chilean study of alienation and attachment doesn’t reach out and grab the audience; you have to meet it halfway. But it’s worth the effort. Play follows two lonely people through Santiago. Cristina (Viviana Herrera) is a young indigenous woman who left her home for the big city; she spends her free time walking and playing video games. Then she finds a lost satchel and becomes fascinated with its owner. That would be the severely depressed Tristán (Andrés Ulloa), who isn’t even trying to get over the end of his marriage. His wife has left him for a much sexier man. He returns to live with his mother, but she’s found a stud of her own. Writer/director Alicia Scherson paints a modern world in which technology separates us but human nature brings us together; where people wearing headphones and listening to different music can still flirt with each other.

Recommended: Adam’s Apples, Aquarius, 9:30. The plot sounds like vapid, Hollywood, feel-good drek: A hate-filled neo-Nazi fresh out of prison (Ulrich Thomsen) is paroled to a church where, with the help of a minister who sees the good in everyone and a couple of oddball eccentrics, he learns to help and care for others. But Adam’s Apples is no Hollywood uplift tale. In fact, it’s the blackest of black comedies from Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen. That loving and forgiving minister is dangerously insane, the two oddballs should probably be locked away, and the parish doctor has the worst bedside manner since Groucho Marx’s Dr. Hackenbush. No wonder the neo-Nazi seems to be the sanest person around. On one hand, this is a profoundly religious picture, built on redemption and filled with miracles ranging from a Bible that always opens to the Book of Job to a man who just won’t die. On the other, I never laughed so hard at a man shooting a cat. The best film I’ve yet seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.