Here are six films I’ve previewed for this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. I’m listing them in order from best to worse, although they’re all at least pretty good.
A Leaf Blower Finding keys in a huge pile of leaves is a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure which huge pile is the right one. The task is near impossible if you’re a teenage boy getting help from two other teenage boys, all struggling with ranging hormones and short attention spans. Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal and his collaborators turn this everyday annoyance into a touching and frequently hilarious comedy. The laughs become rare near the end, but the story holds up without them.[/caption]
A- The Islands and the Whales
The people of the Faroe Islands (in the North Atlantic) hunt most of what they eat–seabirds, fish, and whales. In fact, whaling plays an important cultural role there. But now they’re suffering from the effects of over-hunting, international condemnation from animal rights groups, and worst of all, high concentrations of mercury in their diet (that last one isn’t even their fault). Against breathtaking scenery, director Mike Day provides a sympathetic view of a culture fighting inevitable change. The film made me open my eyes a bit; the people I would naturally see as heroes–Greenpeace activists–come off here as sanctimonious jerks. Warning: This documentary contains a great deal of animal slaughter and butchering.
B+ The Innocents
Stern, rule-based, shameful, and obedience-demanding religion comes up against basic human values in this drama set in a Polish nunnery only months after the end of World War II. The nuns were raped by Russian soldiers and are now experiencing a rash of new-born babies. A young, French doctor does what she can to help them, against orders from her superiors, and finds she must fight with the extremely strict mother superior, as well. The story becomes a battle between grim-faced, unbending religion and humanism–both secular and spiritual.
B+ The Fixer
Osman (Dominic Rains) was a fixer in his native Afghanistan; more than just a translator for Western journalists, he smoothed over cultural differences and made sure his charges didn’t offend people. Now he’s in rural Sonoma County and could use a fixer of his own. He sets out to become a crime reporter and is soon over his head with illegal activities, theatrical hippies, and possible murders. But how do you solve a murder mystery when you don’t really understand the culture? An enjoyable puzzle with thrills that sneak up on you.
- Castro, Sunday, April 24, 8:30
B Five Nights In Maine
The sudden death of his wife in a traffic accident sends Sherwin (David Oyelowo) into a deep and alcoholic depression. To climb out of it, he drives to rural, coastal Maine to visit his mother-in-law (Dianne Wiest). But she’s cold, remote, and dying of cancer. Rosie Perez rounds out the excellent cast. But great acting can only go so far with a merely adequate script–even when photographed in front of beautiful scenery. On a positive note, this is one of the few American films with a black lead in a role that wasn’t about him being black.
- New Mission, Saturday, April 23, 5:00
- New Mission, Monday, April 25, 1:00
- New Mission, Tuesday, April 26, 8:45
B Check It
Life isn’t easy in America’s inner cities if you’re poor, young, black, and gay. This documentary follows the fortunes of several members of a gay gang in the streets of D.C. It began, as all street gangs do, as a form of self-defense, which they sorely needed. Check It doesn’t ignore the aspects of gang life that scare people–fights, purse snatching, and in this gang in particular, prostitution. But you can’t help liking some of the kids. The film gives only slight hope that a few of the gang members will move on to a better life.