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48th San Francisco International Film Festival: The Hills Are Alive with the Sounds of Courtney Cox

by Brandon Judell

Ellen Perry's "The Fall of Fujimori." Photo courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

As George Sanders so splendidly noted as Lord Henry Wotton in the 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray: "It's an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world."

Certainly with 185 films from 48 countries unspooling at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival, it would be hard to dispute that sentiment. Add an attendance figure of 77,000, which was up 5% from 2004, and you definitely had quite a party. There were also stars (e.g. Benjamin Bratt and Jeff Bridges), directors (e.g. Costa-Gavras and Craig Lucas) plus 6 features from Malaysia, 5 from Brazil, and 1 from Tibet.

No wonder Roxanne Messina Captor, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, kvelled at the Film Society Awards Night: "Besides increasing overall attendance, we've expanded our Schools at the Festival program [directors such as Steve James visited classrooms], secured higher profile films by master filmmakers, inaugurated the annual State of Cinema address which was given this year by Oscar winner for "The Incredibles," Brad Bird. We also presented more first run premieres with celebrity guests in attendance, we were one of the few American festivals that had been chosen to present the FIPRESCI jury prize, and we helped more filmmakers secure North American distribution... We've also offered screenwriting master classes, presented sneak peak packages, and formed an alliance with Akimbo Systems to watch video on demand on the San Francisco International Film Channel."

Yes, starting in June, a selection from the 5,000 films shown in the last half century at SIFF will available for downloading from the Internet onto Akimbo players.

But back to the Awards Ceremony. Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby") received the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting, causing him to recall: "I was standing at the bar at the Oscars, getting drunk with Charlie Kaufman, one of our great writers. Me, because I knew I could get drunk because I wasn't going to win, and Charlie because he knew he was going to win and therefore had to drink. The worst thing you can do actually is ask a writer to give an acceptance speech. That said, I'm very grateful to receive this award, especially because its named after Maurice Kanbar who's done so much for the arts... by creating Skye vodka, which we artists really, really appreciate."

Joan Allen, who was accepting her Peter J. Owens Award for being an actor whose work "exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity," recalled her first movies which happened to filmed in San Francisco: "When I came here and I did "Peggy Sue Got Married," I got my feet wet a little bit, and then I did "Tucker." At that point, I got a beautiful apartment in Sausalito with a view of Alcatraz. Plus I had the opportunity to work with Francis Coppola, Jeff Bridges, and for the first time in 8 or 9 years have a washer and dryer. I would spend my free time doing laundry. It was a big change in my life."

Taylor Hackford was also honored for his direction, and a night earlier, at the Castro Theater, before a screening of his film "The Idolmaker," he had an almost two-hour chat mostly about the making of "Ray": "We tried and tried to make this film, and the studios were never receptive. It was only because of one man who had a lot of money that it got made. It was a very strange situation because Phil Anschutz is a moral conservative. Not really born again but he's a religious guy, and it seemed to me very strange that this man would want to make a story about Ray Charles because Ray's life was pretty rough and tough. But Phil really believed in this subject; however, he wanted to make the film PG-13 with no swearing, which I think is fascinating, because if there's anybody who lived an X-life it was Ray. I basically refused, so I left the project.

"The reason I came back was Ray. He said, 'Taylor, you're a fool. You've been trying to make this movie for 13 years now and you've finally got the got the guy who'll do it. Shit, I didn't say "fuck" in the fifties. I say it now, but I didn't then.'"

Greg Harrison had fewer problems pulling together "November," his first feature after his popular drug-infested "Groove." Courtney Cox stars as a photography teacher with a bad haircut who repeatedly experiences a fatal robbery at a corner store ala "Run Lola Run." Highly irritating and nonsensical, the 73-minute thriller still seemed to strike a chord with many attendees who cheered the director and Friends star who playfully sparred with each other and answered questions at the screening.

Cox: The movie was shot in 15 days for 150,000. Correct?

Harrison: And it all went to you!

Cox: I don't think I actually ever got a paycheck, which we'll talk about later. By the way, I got married here. It's a great town.

indieWIRE: Having previously made a movie where everyone was on ecstasy, did that help you with "November?"

Harrison: Yes, this was sort of like the coming down from "Groove."

Moving on to the articulate, Robert Guédiguian's "The Last Mitterrand" is a brilliantly acted, directed and written look at the last days of the French president and the relationship he had with his biographer. Wise and witty with a superb Michel Bouquet, this should no doubt be a major art house hit.

Another perfect film with a masterful screenplay is Jenni Olson's seductive experimental offering, "The Joy of Life." While ever-changing sights of San Francisco stay on the screen for anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute, a butch lesbian narrator (Harriet "Harry" Dodge) recalls her love life ("I'm home sucking in Tic Tacs. Rather be having sex with K.C.), moves on to the making of Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," and ends with the history of the Golden Gate and its thousands of suicides. This semi-autobiographical epic has already made front-page news in San Francisco, and has caused the powers that be to revamp the Bridge to make it harder to jump off.

But why no actors? Olson notes, "I saw so many bad movies, and I sort had this feeling that the downfall of most small independent gay films is acting. Acting and production. So really early on I felt like I wanted to make a movie that didn't involve actors with dialogue. I was really influenced by the work of people like Su Friedrich and Warren Sonbert, and James Benning, who's not gay but does landscape films."

Mar´┐Ża Victoria Menis's "Little Sky" also travels about, but this time in Argentina. Felix, a homeless teen, winds up getting offered room and board by a wife-beating, alcoholic, unemployed factory worker. While the woman of the house nurses her wounds, Felix spends more and more time with couple's one year old, whom he falls in love with and eventually absconds with. Powerful, even more so because it's true.

Saverio Costanzo, an Italian director, sets his "Private" in the West Bank. A Palestinian family begins to fall apart when Israeli troops take over their house. The father refuses to leave on principle while the mother wants to escape to a more peaceful existence. That several of Israeli soldiers are depicted as men forced to do a job that they really rather not be accomplishing (one plays the flute on his free time), adds to the film's force.

Enric Folch's "Tempus Fugit." Photo courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Also from Argentina is Edgardo Cozarinsky's fascinating "Ronda Nocturna." Victor is a gay, drug-dealing hustler who has more sex in one night than many of us have in a decade or two. That he is nearly murdered twice within 12 or so hours is not surprising. Beautifully shot, the film only falters twice near its finale with two over-the-top escapades. But thanks to the searing Gonzalo Heredia, you won't care. Just imagine a young Alain Delon, and you've got it.

Also over the top but far less forgivable is "Three... Extremes," a horror trilogy films by a trio of Hong Kong directors. The first by Fruit Chan, "Dumplings," tells of a rich woman who'll will go to any length to regain her youth, even chomping down on dumplings filled with crunchy fetuses obtained by a sprightly abortionist. When the abortionist must go into hiding along with her magic dumplings, the wealthy damsel isn't depressed for long. After all, she just discovered she's pregnant. You can imagine the finale. The other two episodes are far less tasty.

Another horror offering, one inspired by his actual brother-in-law's death, is Dave Gebroe's "Zombie Honeymoon." The young man noted his first SIFF screening was a huge success: "Midnight was unbelievable. Stella Artois sponsored the event. Everybody was lubricated so I think I was the only one who wasn't boozed up. It was the only screening that I've ever had where somebody didn't ask me how much the movie cost. This is a very intelligent audience out here. They don't just lap anything up. So for people to have responded as well as they did, I think hopefully it means that I did something right."

Other films of note: Francesco Fei's "Wave" in which a woman with a birthmark covering half her face dates a blind man without telling him; Ellen Perry's hard-hitting doc, "The Fall of Fujimori," tells the tale of a once-virtuous Japanese immigrant who took over Peru and started an oppressive war on terror; Ralph Arlyck made a prize-winning doc about Sean, the 4-year-old son of hippies, 30 years ago. What happened to this lad who could speak knowledgeably about pot and speed freaks? We find out in the fascinating "Following Sean." In Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer's "Life in a Box," the queer country duo, Y'All, after a decade of not hitting the big time, slowly get on each other's nerves plus that of the lover they share. Picture "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on Valium overdose, and you're half way there.

Not least of all is Spain's "Tempus Fugit" helmed by Enric Folch. Grab the American remake rights immediately. This silly, but endearing comedy tells of a shy nobody whom a man from the future contacts. It appears the nebbish is the only soul alive who can save the world. But how? Add time-travel over-the-counter tablets, distraught soccer fans, plus sudden romance, and you've got a winner.



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