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Good and Good For You!

[whitespace] Juha
Finnish Lines: Aki Kaurismaki's 'Juha,' from Finland, screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Metropolitan's guide to our favorite SF International Film Fest movies

Reviews by Richard von Busack (RvB), Michelle Goldberg (MG), Isabel Sadurni (IS) and Christine Brenneman (CB)

Silence has often spoken loudest in Aki Kaurismaki's desperate and comically ironic scenarios of bar-hound poets, match-factory girls and jump-coifed rock musicians on tour. His latest, Juha, an adaptation of a early-20th-century Finnish novel, reaches further into the muted purity of the cinematic image and pays homage to stylistics of the great film masters of the 1920s, complete with intertitles, crisp black-and-white photography and heartfelt innocence. Kaurismaki regulars enact a melodramatic love triangle involving a naive young country wife, her simple farmer-husband and a charming older wolf from the city with a fast sports car. In no time the shy young lamb from the country is rouged, ready and racing past chicken-cooped neighbors straight into bedlam. (IS)

(Finland, 78 minutes, directed by Aki Kaurismaki) April 27, 9pm, at the Pacific Film Archives; April 26, 9:30pm, and May 5, 7:30pm, at the Kabuki; May 2, 1:30pm, at the Rafael Film Center

Full Moon
It's odd to call a film about 12 disappeared 10-year-olds "whimsical," but the darkly charming Swiss mystery Full Moon has an element of lightness and magic that creates a compelling contrast to a sad plot. 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. Soon, all the parents receive identical letters, each in their own children's handwriting, with a cryptic message, "We want the earth on earth."

While centering on Toni's mother, Irene, and Wasser, the kindly detective who becomes obsessed with the case, Full Moon also spotlights the other parents as they descend into paranoia, mania and bitterness, each convinced that the case is all about them and their personal enemies and fears. The climax, a live TV broadcast during which the parents address their children, is utterly surreal, as each uses the camera for pleas, proselytizing and recriminations. In a way that is reminiscent of 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. (MG)

(Switzerland, 124 minutes, directed by Fredi M. Mürer) April 27, 6:40pm, at the Kabuki

Javi, Manu and Rai are adolescent summer street dreamers in contemporary southern Spain who want to make it out of their beaten-down, sad-side-of-the-tracks existence. The rift between their fantasy of living out the commercial models of fame, fortune and earning enough for a back-ad "French job" and the reality of their barely cared for home life, demoralizing neighborhood and generally shallow perspective transforms them into opportunistic hustlers. Scamming for a pizza delivery job, a drug deal, a girlfriend, a break, they ultimately win only a scratch toward happiness. Details like the desperation with which Javi and Rai fight for a dance with a cardboard-cut-out beer babe or their empathizing glances at a beached, disemboweled jet ski on the sidewalk add resonance to this out-of-place, out-of-luck, can't-get-nowhere character study. (IS)

(Spain/France/Portugal, 99 minutes, directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa) May 2, 9:50pm, and May 5, 7:20pm, at the Kabuki.

Break Even
Originally a Berlin Film School graduation project, this unpolished scenario of émigré streetwalkers and petty thieves shot in low-tech, hand-held digital video bends a potentially interesting tale of lost souls in search of meaning and connectedness into a shadow dance of hopeless meanderings. When two prostitutes--one a Bosnian refugee, the other a Spanish immigrant--cross paths with Alex, an irresponsible toothpick-chewing, tool-heisting carpenter, they galvanize the little ambition each possesses to try to forge new life directions. Yet, like the slight ripple of momentum that propels this story, their lives continue on separate paths without serious conflict or consequence. (IS)

(Germany, 81 minutes, directed by Eoin Moore) April 29, 9:30pm, and April 30, 7:10pm, at the Kabuki

Getting to Know You
A film about the horror of rejection and mediocrity, Getting to Know You builds slowly, gathering power as it goes. Set in an upstate New York bus stop where siblings Wesley and Judith wait to go their separate ways after visiting their mother in a mental hospital, the movie segues into segments exploring the sordid stories of other passengers, all of which amplify the central tale, told in flashback, of familial rejection and household horror. Once a debonair dancing couple with Rogers and Astaire dreams, Wesley and Judith's parents got mired in blue-collar bitterness and alcoholism, directing their rage at each other and at their unglamorous children. "Can you believe I am the mother of such hulking offspring?" their mother sneers. When the domestic strife reaches too furious a pitch, Wesley and Judith are set adrift, their mother unable and their father unwilling to care for them.

Getting to Know You is based on Heat, a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. The oddly structured screenplay impressively incorporates several almost unrelated subnarratives into the film without making them seem forced or arbitrary. Director Lissanne Skyler does an admirable job of capturing Oates' tense, seething rust-belt world where everyday disappointment is always just on the verge of exploding into brutality. (MG)

(U.S.A., 94 minutes, directed by Lissanne Skyler) May 1, 7pm, at the Pacific Film Archives; May 2, 7:15pm, at the Kabuki

Le Poulpe

Le Poulpe
Like Die Hard as directed by Jean Luc Godard, Le Poulpe is a darkly funny crime caper with an ultra-cool New Wave sheen. As it begins, a hip, grizzled hangdog detective known as the "Squid" is searching a church with his partner when he comes across a dead man in a red rubber 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, latex-and-fur-wearing girlfriend Cheryl 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 soon sucked into a mystery involving grave robbing, murder and neo-fascist thugs.

Le Poulpe is generously spiked with cartoon violence and deadpan gags--a Hitler impersonator cruising casually around a department store, a cop who demands the Squid's papers after finding out that he doesn't like Metallica. Both a quintessential hard-boiled noir hero and an original comic creation, the Squid favors black suits, shiny white shoes and anarchist newspapers, and his alienation has a political edge. In one scene, he casually dumps a bucket of animal blood on a Phyllis Schafly-type demagogue.

Le Poulpe is also enlivened by a street-level existentialism. The Squid tries to create a Sartrean open relationship with Cheryl, and it bites him in the ass. When he stops by her place only to find her in bed with another woman, she's the one who gets to be indignant, pouting, "Freedom is an obligation. Isn't that your big thing? We're in love, but we respect each other's freedom. Your surprise visits undermine my freedom." 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. (MG)

(France, 100 minutes, directed by Guillaume Nicloux) April 29, 9:30pm, at the Kabuki; April 30, 7pm, at the Rafael Film Center


Film Fest movies by Bay Area directors.


Stop Making Sense
This joyful and rousing 1984 concert film by Jonathan Demme records a Talking Heads performance on December 1983 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. This group was the flower of New Wave music. They were among the last rock musicians who were neither tragic martyrs for their art nor arrogant dick-wielding savages. The Talking Heads' combination of exaltation and sass made them a formidable band. Leader David Byrne's Yankee transcendentalism bore a Teflon coat of New York sarcasm. Stop Making Sense begins with the lone figure of jittery frontman Byrne accompanied by a thumping boombox as the rhythm track for the Taxi Driver-inspired hit "Psycho Killer." Over the next 88 minutes, the music builds (and is built upon) into a secular mass of call and response, in tunes like "Girlfriend Is Better," "Slippery People" and "Swamp." New print. (RvB)

(USA, 90 minutes, directed by Jonathan Demme) Plays April 27, 9:45pm, the Castro

The Terrorist
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.

Instead, The Terrorist is a bracing portrait of a girl torn between her deep ideological commitment and loyalty to her family (her brother was a martyr to the cause she fights for) and her equally intense desire to live. 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--the kindness shown Malli by an impish young guide and an avuncular landlord contrasts with the cold utilitarianism of her comrades, and flashbacks to a one-night love affair with a soldier dying in her arms suggest that there's more in Malli's heart than just revolutionary fervor. These moments of grace make the movie's violence all the more shattering. (MG)

(India, 95 minutes, directed by Santosh Sivan) April 27, 9:20pm, at the Kabuki; May 2, 3:30pm, at the Rafael Film Center

Taken scene by scene, the Hungarian movie Passion is almost a direct remake of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, but the gloomy, Eastern European heaviness of the film separates it from the sharp noir of the two American film versions of James Cain's novel. Unlike the characters in the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner or the 1981 remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, all the people in this movie actually look like workers at a dead-end rural truck stop. Here, the cuckolded husband is a brutal tyrant, not an innocent buffoon as in Postman. When he forces his wife to dance with his assistant, her lover, it's a sadistic control game, not a naive bit of jollity.

As in the original, the wife and her lover connive to murder her husband, but here the plot is utterly without dark glamour. The wife is weathered and frowzy, her lover taciturn and gaunt. Their truck stop is all mildewy corners and exposed light bulbs, and the whole thing is filmed in a grainy, high-contrast black-and-white that makes it seem older than either previous film version of the story. The pace is glacial, full of lingering shots of empty, dirty hallways and desolate countryside, but Passion possesses a strange, hypnotic power. We usually see American remakes of European films, not vice versa, and it's fascinating to watch Feher imbue this familiar plot with an entirely raw, un-Hollywood desperation. (MG)

(Hungary, 136 minutes, directed by György Féher) April 29, 6:45pm, and May 5, 9:20pm, at the Kabuki; May 2, 8pm, at the Pacific Film Archives

Lucky People Center International
Filmmakers Pauser and Soderberg took two years to complete this documentary that focuses on the different beliefs and ways of living practiced the world over. From the leader of the Heaven's Gate cult to voodoo priestesses and Buddhist monks, Lucky People Center International highlights what makes people tick through short interviews and ritual practices. Music and rhythm unify these disparate spiritual elements almost like an extended and mystifying music video; the continuous sweep of sounds and images offers many slices of life. In the end, Lucky People Center International brings a mixed message of hope and caution to the people of the world as we approach the millennium. (CB)

(Sweden, 81 minutes, directed by Erik Pauser and Johan Soderberg) April 26, 10pm, at the Castro; April 30, 9:45pm, at the Rafael Film Center

Negative Space
A collection of short films by Chris Petit of the U.K. "Surveillance" and "Radio On [Remix]" are of minor interest--the first, ruminations about video cameras; the second, a revisit of the scenes of Radio On, a feature-length film Petit made in '79. However, 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-long film. Farber was aged and tired in the interviews, and his ideas don't get a counterargument. 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. At worst, Farber's methods ignore the messy, sprawling, lively organism that is a film, in favor of an isolated sample. (RvB)

(England, 40 minutes, directed by Chris Petit) April 26, 7pm, at the Pacific Film Archives; April 26, 9:50pm, and May 1, 4pm, at the Kabuki

Some of the classic gangster movies, such as Little Caesar, High Sierra and Public Enemy, turn out on reexamination 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 simian thug Tony Camonte, whose rise and fall are hastened by his unnatural love for his sister (played by the mad-eyed Ann Dvorak). It's a dark, expressionist work, with grand shadows, blazing electric signs and oversized acting. Yet Scarface isn't stagey, like a lot of expressionist film; it's extraordinarily kinetic, charged with almost 1999 levels of collision and gunfire. The preachy segments of the concerned civic officials were added later by censors, who held up the film's release for two years. Fears about gangsta messages in the media go back a long, long time. (RvB)

(U.S.A., 90 minutes, directed by Howard Hawks) April 26, 7pm, at the Castro

On the Ropes
A sort of Hoop Dreams of New Jersey's amateur boxing world, On the Ropes chronicles the aspirations of three young boxers trying to escape a middling station in life. The riveting story--winner of this year's Special Jury Award at Sundance--centers on the caring middle-aged man who trains youths at his boxing center in New Bedford-Stuyvesant. At first glance, the film seems to follow the clichéd formula of kids from the projects hoping to make it, but On the Ropes gets under the viewer's skin as the characters become more real.

There's Tyrene, an iron-willed woman who lives with her crackhead uncle and takes care of his two daughters, all the while attempting to make it as a boxer; George, the one on whom a lot of hopes are hung because he has the makings of a professional fighter; and finally Noel, a smart but marginally motivated kid who shows promise but struggles even to get to school. 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. (CB)

(U.S.A., 90 minutes, directed by Nanette Burstein) May 3, 6:45pm, at the Kabuki

The Theaters
The Castro, 429 Castro St.; 415.621.6120
The Kabuki, 1881 Post St.; 415.922.4262
Pacific Film Archives, 2625 Durant Ave., Berkeley; 510.642.1412
Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415.383.5256

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From the April 26, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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