The 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped up on May 8th with Chris Messina’s critically touted, “Alex of Venice.” This year’s fest program was seemingly rock solid (or else I’m getting better at picking movies). Almost everything I saw fell somewhere between great and fantastic, with only a couple of duds in the mix. So let’s get the bad out of the way first:
“Ping Pong Summer” – I see what they tried to do there. People of a certain age (myself included) possess a degree of forgiving nostalgia over the beating the bully/overcoming impossible odds films of the nineteen hundred and eighties. I can’t say if “Better off Dead” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” are truly good films or if they’re just a comforting snapshot of my childhood. But to capture that vibe in a new film, you’re going to have to do a little better than “Ping Pong Summer.” It’s “Better off Dead” with a splash of “Vacation” thrown in. But it tries too hard and flounders too much.
“Standing Aside, Watching” – This painful film was billed as a western-style revenge picture. But it felt a lot more like a series of scenes competing for bleakness. If it’s meant to depict female empowerment, it has a funny way of showing it. Women get the short end of the stick (usually in the form of an unwanted penis) over and over again in this small, impoverished Greek town. The protagonist is kind of abusive herself, but that still doesn’t warrant the treatment she receives from the resident psycho misogynist. The title refers to the general attitude of the townspeople, who just “stand aside, watching” while bad things happen. They say this line over and over and over again, just in case you couldn’t glean the theme from context. 89 minutes that felt like an eternity.
“Palo Alto” – Like “Kids” and “Spring Breakers” before it, “Palo Alto” confirms parents’ worst fears about what their suburban teenagers are up to when they’re away from the watchful eyes of adults. They’re binge drinking, driving under the influence, screwing like rabbits and generally giving in to every awful whim that crosses their undeveloped brains. It doesn’t help that the adults who do pay attention to them only do so in order to take advantage of them. Perhaps it is an accurate depiction of modern youth, but it lacks the poetry and style of “Spring Breakers,” leaving only the doom and gloom. I didn’t have any fun at all watching this movie.
“Soul Food Stories” – There’s nothing particularly bad about this glimpse into life in a small, Bulgarian town ruled by “tradition” (a euphemism for female oppression). It’s a good way to experience a place that I would never want to visit. But it’s hard not to get upset watching men stand around discussing a woman’s place and the reasons why they can’t be involved in decisions. The men think they are being open-minded because they can come together from different religious backgrounds and have a civil discussion over drinks. But they all seem to agree that women aren’t good for anything other than cooking and taking care of the house. No wonder all the young people move away at their first opportunity.
“Last Weekend” – Patricia Clarkson is the shining jewel in this otherwise mediocre film about the end of an era for one affluent family at their Lake Tahoe palatial estate. Mostly depicting spoiled young people fretting about their “problems” (like how mom might be selling ONE of their childhood vacation homes – who will get her basket collection?!) reads like an Oscar Wilde play minus the jokes. Only Clarkson delivers a nuanced performance, bringing some universal maternal angst into the otherwise bland story. Gifted character actor, Fran Kranz is utterly squandered in a completely dispensable role.
“Art & Craft” – An absolutely riveting character study of a lonely, mentally unbalanced man named Mark Landis, who has found purpose in forging famous paintings and donating them to museums around the country. Landis accidentally creates a nemesis in Matthew Leininger, a registrar who, after interacting with him for mere minutes, becomes preoccupied with exposing the man for a fraud, despite the lack of illegality in his “binge philanthropy”. The story gives both men ample screen time, turning this ripped-from-the-headlines tale into a study of the madness of loneliness from two sides of the same coin.
“Boyhood” – If you spend 12 years making a film, I imagine it’s emotionally taxing to edit. The excessive running time is one of the only missteps in Richard Linklater’s opus, which follows a boy and his family (using the same actors throughout) from age 6 to 18. Though the boy (Ellar Coltrane) is the main character, the film also spends plenty of time with his older sister and divorced parents (in career-defining performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). It is such a unique endeavor that the more scripted/cinematic scenes weigh down what is otherwise a very poignant and naturalistic portrait of family dynamics.
“Club Sandwich” – A coming-of-age film that accurately captures the awkward, mortifying messiness of teenage sexual exploration as well as the internal struggle that even the coolest mom experiences when she starts to feel her baby pull away.
“Obvious Child” – Jenny Slate displays a variety of performance skills in her lead debut. Best known for her scene-stealing guest spots on shows like “Parks and Rec”, “Bob’s Burgers” and “Hello Ladies” to name a few, she gets a chance to deliver her signature confessional comedy in the role of a struggling stand-up comedian who falls apart after being dumped. She almost sabotages a budding romance with an uber-nice guy after an evening’s indiscretion. Ably backed by Gaby Hoffman, writer/director Gillian Robespierre injects life into the lady-in-arrested-development trope and offers a rare depiction of a healthy, supportive female friendship.
“The Trip to Italy” – Featuring a self-aware conversation about the disappointment of sequels, Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to “The Trip” (2010) defies conventional wisdom, giving audiences a worthy predecessor. Though it’s more of the same (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing satirical versions of themselves as they attempt to outperform each other during a culinary odyssey), it’s a delicious dish that I’d happily consume again and again. This time, Brydon gets to showcase the pathos and Coogan provides glimpses of self-awareness through peppering hair and a sagging middle. It’s still up in the air whose Michael Caine impression dominates.
“South is Nothing” – You may never be in the mood to experience the emotional destruction that this film delivers. But if you’re already feeling gloomy, you might as well watch this Italian tragedy about a lonely teenage girl who yearns to learn the truth about her brothers’ disappearance. Lead actress, Miriam Karlvist, devastates with her robust performance.
Most of these films already have distribution deals, so look for them in your neck of the woods in the coming months. See you next year, San Fran!