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[whitespace] Le Poulpe
Squid Pro Quo: In 'Le Poulpe,' trouble dogs a detective nicknamed 'the Squid.'

A selective guide to the best of this year's San Francisco Film Festival

THE BAY AREA seems to have a film festival of some sort every week, but most of them pale beside the San Francisco International Film Festival. With 185 films from 57 countries, the 42nd annual cinema extravaganza includes everything from earnest documentaries to glossy indies. Trying to decide which films to see can be a daunting project. It's usually rewarding to go beyond the high-profile headline getters and explore the no-budget and foreign films that may never reach theaters.

Just because a picture is highbrow, after all, doesn't mean it's good. With that in mind, we've previewed many--but not nearly all--of the films being offered and picked our favorites.

Full Moon (Switzerland, 124 min., directed by Fredi M. Mürer) It's odd to call a film about 12 disappeared 10-year-olds "whimsical," but this darkly charming Swiss mystery has elements of lightness and magic. On the morning after a full moon, a boy named Toni vanishes on his way to school. Gradually, we learn that 12 other children disappeared on the same day. While focusing on Toni's mother and the kindly detective who becomes obsessed with the case, Full Moon also spotlights the other parents as they descend into paranoia, mania and bitterness. As with Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, one gets the sense that what's at work in Full Moon is supernatural, not criminal, and director Fredi Mürer does a wonderful job blending the mystical with the tragicomic. (April 27, 6:40pm, at the Kabuki Theater.) (Michelle Goldberg)

Le Poulpe (France, 100 min., directed by Guillaume Nicloux) Like Die Hard directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Le Poulpe is a darkly funny crime caper. As it begins, a hip, grizzled detective known as "the Squid" is searching a church when he comes across a dead man in a bondage suit holding a large screw. "Another damned clue," he sighs. What does it mean? We never find out--the scene is just there to establish our protagonist's everyday life. The real story begins when his sharp, kittenish girlfriend gets a telegram reading, "We regret to inform you that vandals have desecrated your grandparents' grave." Soon the two have traveled to a hostile French port town, where they're sucked into a mystery involving grave robbing and neo-fascist thugs. Though it has the surface glitz of a Hollywood flick and the propulsive dazzle of a Hong Kong shoot 'em up, Le Poulpe evinces a winking intellectualism that is distinctly French. (April 29, 9:30pm, at the Kabuki; April 30, 7pm, at the Rafael Film Center.) (MG)

Negative Space (England, 40 min., directed by Chris Petit) In this collection of short films by Chris Petit of the U.K. "Surveillance" and "Radio On [Remix]" are of minor interest, but the third short, "Negative Space," analyzes the theories of Manny Farber (whose collected essays on film, also titled Negative Space, were just reprinted this year). Farber, the most intrepid film critic ever to write in English, is interviewed by Petit. Unfortunately, the Farber interviews are a small part of the 40-minute film. Farber was aged and tired in the interviews, and his ideas don't get a counter-argument. By zeroing in, as Farber did, on one gesture--say, the way Bogart crosses a studio reproduction of Las Palmas Avenue in The Big Sleep--the totality of a movie is ignored. (April 26, 7pm, at the Pacific Film Archives; April 28, 9:50pm, and May 1, 4pm, at the Kabuki.) (Richard von Busack)

Scarface (U.S.A., 90 min., directed by Howard Hawks) Some of the classic gangster movies, such as Little Caesar and Public Enemy, turn out on re-examination to be middling films graced with iconic performances. The original 1932 Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, on the other hand, is a great film throughout. It has a crackling, wise-ass script, and it races along breathlessly, high on crime. Paul Muni, with an X-shaped scar on his left cheek, plays the thug Tony Camonte, whose rise and fall are hastened by his unnatural love for his sister (mad-eyed Ann Dvorak). It's a dark, expressionist work, with grand shadows, blazing electric signs and oversized acting. Yet Scarface isn't stagy, like a lot of expressionist film; it's extraordinarily kinetic, charged with almost 1999 levels of collisions and gunfire. (April 26, 7pm, at the Castro Theater.) (RvB)

On the Ropes (U.S.A., 90 min., directed by Nanette Burstein) A sort of Hoop Dreams of New Jersey's amateur boxing world, On the Ropes chronicles the aspirations of three young boxers in New Bedford-Stuyvesant. At first glance, On the Ropes seems to follow the clichéd formula of kids from the projects hoping to make it, but the film gets under the viewer's skin as the characters become more real. There's Tyrene, an iron-willed woman who lives with her crack-head uncle and takes care of his two daughters; George, the one on whom a lot of hopes are hung because he has the makings of a professional fighter; and Noel, a smart but marginally motivated kid. The universal feelings of high hopes, dashed dreams and perseverance keep the story moving along, and by the end, we only want the best for these endearing people. (May 3, 6:45pm, at the Kabuki.) (CB)

The Terrorist (India, 95 min., directed by Santosh Sivan) A haunting movie about a deeply committed young guerrilla fighter prepared to go on a suicide mission, The Terrorist lures the viewer into accepting an alien moral code. Watching this remarkable film, we understand--and respect--Malli, a 19-year-old girl planning to strap a bomb to her waist at a reception for a powerful politician. Though it was inspired by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the actual ideologies in the movie are kept vague. Set in the week leading up to the scheduled murder, the film is alternately beautiful and harrowing. Moments of heart-rending tenderness give the story a surreal kind of glow. (April 27, 9:20pm, at the Kabuki; May 2, 3:30pm, at the Rafael Film Center.) (MG)


The SF International Film Festival runs April 22-May 6 in San Francisco at the Castro, 429 Castro St., and the Kabuki, 1881 Post St.; in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archives, 2625 Durant Ave.; and in San Rafael at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St. For more information, visit the website at www.sfiff.org or call 888/ETM-TIXS.

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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