San Francisco International Film Festival Preview

Here are five films I’ve previewed for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. I’ve arranged them in order from potential masterpiece to stinker.

Except that there are no stinkers in this batch. As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s acting range, these films run the gamut from A to B. Only in this case, that’s a compliment.

A Dearest
Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, and complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

  • Clay, Saturday, April 25, 6:00
  • Kabuki, Thursday, April 30, 6:30

A- Democrats
image  How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running the show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.

A- Best of Enemies
In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:00
  • Clay, Sunday, April 26, 3:30

B+ The Postman’s White Nights
This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a place that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As someone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:30
  • Kabuki, Sunday, April 26, 9:30

Note: On April 22, I discovered that I had left screening times off for Democrats. I have just corrected that.