SFIFF Friday: Chilean Black Comedy, Russian Whodoneit, and American Rockumentary

Here’s what I saw at my first almost-full day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. I caught all of these films at the Kabuki.

B- Night Across the Street
Writer/director Raúl Ruiz was dying of cancer when he made this strange, surreal comedy. Not surprising that it’s all about death. A moderately elderly man faces retirement and a seemingly pre-ordained violent death with a matter-imageof-fact calmness. Such calmness permeates the film and adds to its deadpan humor. Beethoven and Long John Silver pop up, mostly in scenes of the protagonist as a young boy. In the film’s funniest moment, Beethoven disrupts a movie screening. Ruiz lit almost the entire film with an amber glow coming from one side of the screen–as if everything was shot at what photographers call golden hour. Wonderful at first, Night Across the Street eventually drags. Had it been a half hour shorter, it would have been a much better movie.

Night Across the Street has two more screenings scheduled, at the Kabuki this Monday at 6:00, and at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, May 4, at 6:30. It’s also on the Festival’s "Hold Review" list, which means that it will likely receive an American theatrical release.

A- The Daughter
A serial killer is lose in a small Russian town, targeting teenage girls. That’s not a good time for Inna to go through the usual problems of adolescence. What’s more, her mother is long dead, imageher stern father is cold and strict (although there is a sense that he loves her), she’s responsible for her little brother, and her new best friend is a "bad" girl out to seduce the local priest’s handsome son. The film uses the mystery genre to  take us on a tour of post-Soviet Russian life as the protagonist and the community deal with raging alcoholism,  religious conflict, and corpses turning up in the mud. While in many ways deeply depressing, The Daughter also celebrates the resilience of youth, the genuine magic of first love, and the healing power of humanitarian religion.

One big problem: The subtitles appear to have been written by someone who barely knows English. Bad grammar and malaprops  provide unintended laughs that take us out of the story. If you watched Hong Kong films in the 1990s, you know what I’m talking about.

The Daughter is not expected to receive an American theatrical release. But you have two more chances to catch it at the festival. This Sunday at the Kabuki at 1:00, and at the Pacific Film Archive Monday, May 6, 9:00.

A Twenty Feet from Stardom
Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocalimage texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton ("Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!"), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without getting credit for it ("He’s a Rebel"). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) prop up among the talking heads, but this time, the spotlight points to the artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice as a musical instrument.

After the movie, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton came out and sang for us, followed by a brief discussion with the filmmakers. Some highlights:

  • Merry Clayton: All of our fathers were ministers. We were in Church all the time. We lived that. We knew that God was in charge.  I didn’t start cursing until I met Ray Charles.
  • Director Morgan Neville: Church was the perfect training for the phycology of being a backup singer. You learn to serve a greater good.
  • Merry: Darlene Love was the mother of us all. We all love each other and support each other.

Twenty Feet from Stardom will not screen again at the Festival. But it will receive a full theatrical release in June.