San Fran Fest Preview

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens tomorrow night, and I have so far seen five of the films to be presented there. Here’s what I think of them, in order from best to worst.

All of these films will have runs after the festival, so you’ll have additional chances to see them.

Ballast. Vast, flat, cold, muddy landscapes make a perfect metaphor for the lonely human heart in Lance Hammer’s directorial debut. Set in a sparsely-populated piece of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast brings us into the lives of three troubled souls struggling with loss and a need for family. Hammer avoids professional actors, music, and artificial lighting, creating a reality that Hollywood could never match. Hollywood would have turned Ballast into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit (I can almost hear that line narrated in the trailer). It would have been a good movie, but Hammer made it into a great one. Pacific Film Archive, Friday, May 2, 6:30; Kabuki, Sunday, May 4, 12:45;
Wednesday, May 7, 6:30

I Served the King of England. For more than half of its runtime, Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy celebrates the joys of serving the filthy rich. We accept this empty and amoral theme because the movie is funny and visually pleasing, but even more because Ivan Barnev is engaging and likeable as the story’s ambitious waiter protagonist. But just the fun and games begin to get tiring (for us, not Jan), the Nazis arrive. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and shows us just how low he can go. Told mostly in flashbacks, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone throughout. Kabuki, Wednesday, April 30, 6:00; Saturday, May 3, 9:00

Water Lilies. San Francisco International Film Festival Us old folks need to be reminded from time to time just how bad this whole sex thing can be for a teenager, and Céline Sciamma’s teenage drama brings all those horrors back in gruesome emotional detail. Marie and Anne (Pauline Acquart and Louise Blachère) are best friends, with Marie cheering on Anne’s synchronized swimming team. But then Marie goes out of her way, and even humiliates herself, to befriend the beautiful but bitchy team captain Floriane (Adele Haenel). Anne has a major crush on Floriane’s boyfriend, complicating matters. None of the characters behave in the way you’d expect them to–especially if your expectations come from other movies. Kabuki, Saturday, April 26, 9:00; Monday, May 5, 1:30

The Last Mistress. Pretty tame by the standards of writer/director Catherine Breillat, but still very erotic, The Last Mistress concerns itself with the sex lives of the rich and noble-born, all done with the sumptuous costumes and scenery one expects in such a period piece. The film works best in a long flashback that dominates the middle of the picture, where we really get to know Vellini for the strange and impulsive person she is. Unfortunately, The Last Mistress sags horribly before the flashback begins, and not-so-horribly-but-still-not-so-good after its over. The good parts don’t quite earn it a B, but they’re close. Opening night. Castro, Thursday, April 24, 7:00

The Wackness. As a drugged-out New York psychiatrist, Ben Kingsley looks astonishingly like Harvey Keitel, and hardly ever sounds British. Although Kingsley gets top billing, Josh Peck plays the lead roll, a pot dealer fresh out of high school, and one of the doctor’s patients (he’s paying his shrink bills in marijuana). But while The Wackness entertains, it never quite jells. As a character, Josh lacks the depth and interest needed to fill a movie, while as an actor Peck lacks the charisma to carry one. Kingsley has the charisma, but his talent can’t raise Dr. Squires much above the one-joke character of the script. Centerpiece. Kabuki, Saturday, May 3, 7:00