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David Lamble

Post date:
04/23/05- 00:00:00 AM
San Francisco Bay Area

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2005 SF International Film Festival Week 2

Some of the festival's best moments come in this final weekend of scary looks at some interesting lives. The orgy of Argentine film is complimented by a cup of very hot cinema coffee from Brazil.



The Joy of Life. Jenni Olson's awesome debut feature is actually two film novellas that straddle the parallel themes of ultimate joy and despair - one found in the embrace of a lover, the other in a desperate leap from one of the world's most heartbreakingly beautiful landmarks.

The first novella describes the darkly funny, bittersweet longings of a romantic butch dyke for all the many girls in her life. As read by transgender "queer boy/dyke" actor Harriet "Harry" Dodge (responsible for the made in San Francisco classic By Hook or By Crook), the narrator character teases us with juicy tidbits from a thousand and one nights of good and bad dates, until ten minutes into the film, as if she's now sure she can trust us with something really intimate, she explains where she's coming from.

"How do I want to say this: I seem to struggle with this teenage boy look and struggle with the same internalized misogyny I had as a kid. The veiled misogyny of my butchness, of not wanting to be a girl. I like it when fags think I'm cute, have a crush on me, treat me like one of the guys and yet this kind of psychological passing makes me even more aware of some basic element of self-loathing."

Olson's camera x-rays the soul of the city's many empty streets, a passing car reminding us that hearts still beat there as narrator Dodge informs us how troubled those hearts can be.

Olson also reminds us that this is a movie about movies, as her camera lingers on a cable car crossing Nob Hill we may recall Jimmy Stewart's Scotty driving around that same hill in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Olson employs a poetic ode to the painterly light of San Francisco, read by Beat guru Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to transition gently into the dark second novella that confronts the siren call of the Golden Gate Bridge for troubled souls, specifically as the site of her friend Mark's fatal leap in 1995. Olson deftly juxtaposes the origins of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, with its twin themes of suicide and messianic Christianity, with bridge architect Joseph Strauss' prediction that suicide from the bridge would be neither "possible nor probable."

Recalling that Vertigo was Mark's favorite San Francisco film, Olson appears to wish at times that the imaginary steps invented by Hitchcock for Scotty to rescue Madeleine after her jump into the Bay had been available for a far more challenging rescue.

Olson transcends this city's at times irksome prettiness to reveal why transcendent beauty is not an end in itself. In her director's statement Olson explains that she's drawn to stories "about people not getting what they want." In her screen persona Olson has Dodge assure us that sex may be the most important resource for surviving life in the too beautiful city. "In the moment of desiring and being desired you actually realize that you're okay." (Kabuki/5-1)


The Dying Gaul. Unscreened but much anticipated after its Sundance premiere, playwright Craig Lucas uses his film directorial debut to fashion a romantic melodrama that combines the lust for money and movie fame with a passionate same sex affair. Lucas describes it as "a film about a grieving man who sells a screenplay for a lot of money to a studio. He enters into a love affair with the producer that ultimately results in the destruction of everyone in the story."

In an explosive dialogue driven scene the producer (Campbell Scott) confronts the screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) who had written the script as a way to mourn his dead lover. "I'm sorry if I don't live up to your standards. The trouble is I'm bi-sexual. I like both. You want the truth. You're lucky to be only one thing. I'm not. I'm not hiding in my marriage. I need my marriage!" A film that uses traditional Hollywood extortion tactics plus the new scam of internet dating to offer up an explosive screen threesome, completed by Patricia Clarkson. (Castro/Closing Night/5-5)


Murderball. Filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro shagged Sundance's Audience Award for American Documentary with their kinetic look at the competition between two rival quadriplegic rugby teams, who play in these Mad Max style wheelchairs.

Rubin and Shapiro maintain an intimate but decidedly unsentimental relationship with these guys by probing a vicious rivalry that springs up between the American and Canadian male teams. The coach of the Canadian team is a triple A type personality, a former player named Joe Soares - imagine Robert Duvall's Bull Meechum airforce fighter pilot from The Great Santini in a wheelchair. Soares' chief rival is a hot blooded Texan, Mark Zupan, whose disability stems from a freak accident - his best friend, Chris Igoe, was driving his pickup home drunk and the resulting crash flung Zupan into a local creek where he hung to a tree limb for 13 hours until rescued by paramedics. The ongoing friendship between the feisty Zupan and the guilt ridden Igoe is a haunting subplot throughout the film.

Murderball, or quad rugby, is a real, brutal sport that combines the best or worst qualities of regular rugby, roller derby and just a touch of demolition derby, to provide a bruising and thrill filled thirty-two minutes of action. We see how the guys play, party -- there's a hard drinking underbelly to life as a quadriplegic -- and yes, compete for girlfriends. It turns out that many quad guys have lost neither the drive for sex nor the ability to perform. A moving film that will completely alter your outlook on people with disabilities.

(Note: the first screening at Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center/3200 California/ is fully wheelchair accessible/4-28 -- plus Kabuki/4-29)


Life In A Box. Welcome to the strange looking glass world of gay show biz. Jay and Steven were lovers, country singers, funny talented guys whose myth as a couple and actual lives became caught up in their act. They called themselves Y'all and for a decade they pursued impossible dreams - they're were going to have their own TV show, the first gay country music variety show, they were going to sell millions of CD's, the cute story of how they met was animated, soon every school child would know it by heart - in the end they lived a pretty good, if hard scrabble life on the road. They were written up in The New York Times, but unlike Charles Busch or Harvey Fierstein the article didn't augur fame or fortune. It meant they could still travel from coast to coast in a very small trailer and perform their music and comedy in front of audiences that looked like church revival meetings.

This funny and predictable and slightly disappointing life changed suddenly when a third man, Roger, and his dog, suddenly joined not the act but the relationship. It was now Jay and Steven and Roger. And that was wonderful, for a while, until it wasn't. Life In A Box is a beautifully crafted documentary where the participants feel so unaware of the camera that you feel like you're in the trailer. At one point Steven sneezes and I instinctively say, "Bless you," to the screener tape.

Part Smothers Brother Comedy Hour, part Grand Ole Opry, part gay male Scenes from a Marriage, Life In A Box - produced, directed and co-edited from over 250 hours of video by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer - is entertaining but also very intensely troubling because when the relationship starts to unravel, when the guys start to fight off stage but on camera we feel bad for them, as if we had a stake in the outcome, because, of course, we do. As any gay guy who's ever been in a ménage knows, the three-way relationship was rocky because two of the guys hit it off in bed and two were emotionally in sync. One of the guys is a control freak and the two passive/aggressive ones call him on it. In the end the fate of Y'all is the fate of many show biz relationships - yes, Lucy and Ricky in The Long, Long Trailer - but we feel for these guys because they are us. See this one first on the big screen and then write away for all the Y'all souvenirs you lay your mitts on. (Kabuki 4-30 & 5-5)


Me and You and Everyone We Know. If you can wrap your mind around the unique little world that first time writer/director Miranda July creates in this wonderfully funny and humane comedy you're in for a real treat. July, whose work is familiar to regular followers of National Public Radio's The Next Big Thing, plays Christine a multi-media artist who supports herself as an "Eldercab" driver. Christine is smitten by a down- in-the-heels newly divorced shoe salesman named Richard (John Hawkes who plays one of the hardware store owners so deliciously reviled by Ian McShane's obscenely funny saloon keeper on HBO's Deadwood). Richard is trying to raise two beautiful mixed race sons (played by the astonishingly talented Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff ) while also trying to have some kind of a life. Those of you who've seen the trailer on the Sundance Channel, where July and Hawkes do some daffy funny sparring in his car, will now discover the context for that strange moment of anti-foreplay. Others will enjoy a film where all the characters, kids and adults, are doing their own very specific walk on wild side - two teenage girls "harass" a cute male classmate to the point of orgasm, a six-year-old boy gets involved in a very adult internet chat room with hilarious results, a ten-year-old girl shares her dreams and her hope chest with a nice boy. Oh, yes, and Christine and Richard make their own crazy kind of progress - two steps forward and a pratfall back. Me and You and Everyone You Know will remind astute indie fans of the wonderfully bizarre universe of Eric Mendelson's Judy Berlin where Edie Falco played a Christine like character. But comparisons fail when you're dealing with stupendous creativity. This film, suffused with a queer sensibility although minus any overt homosexuality, manages to master that special territory of the novel - getting inside the heads of more than half a dozen characters without intrusive narration. See it and you'll want to own it.

(Kabuki 5-1/PFA 5-3)


Following Sean. Back in the "summer of love" Ralph Arlyck was living in the Haight (a few doors down from the Manson family, although he didn't know that at the time) when he started documenting the lives of a hippie family living upstairs from him, with special emphasis on their four-year-old son Sean. Three decades later Arlyck catches up with the now adult Sean and tries to discover the effect of hippiedom on the next generation. Arlyck makes mostly astute parallels to his own multi-generational family of socialist Jewish immigrants back east. The clash of cultures and coasts comes through in a film that captivates for its use of time capsule black and white footage of a forever lost bittersweet chapter of San Francisco. Plays like one of KQED's city neighborhood documentaries with a more incisive edge and point of view. Particularly poignant is the fate of Sean's diehard counterculture father.

(Kabuki 5-1 & 5-4)


Mouth To Mouth. Alison Murray's debut feature supposes that a young middleclass girl joins a European version of the Moonies, winding up in a prison farm like commune in Portugal with her own mother. Yeah, life can be that stupid and this film, with its kinetic camera work and very hip soundtrack gives a good feel for what it's like to be young and European today. One very intimate moment upstages the rest of the proceedings - the accidental death of a young teenage boy, whose lifeless body is cradled in a non-sexual but overtly homo-erotic context by a deranged druggie. In some ways the film version of Tim Miller's comic monologue about being kidnapped by the Moonies. Too long, slowly paced as if trying to simulate a drugged out feeling, but engaging. (Kabuki 4-29 & 5-3)


Almost Brothers. Another crazy slice of Brazil, a country whose superb films are a kind of anti-travel ad. Director/writer (with Paulo Lins) Lucia Murat probes fifty years in the lives of two Brazilians - Miguel and Jorge, whose careers take them to prison in the 70's. Miguel is white from a middleclass family, his father's a musicologist; Jorge is black, his father is a never properly recognized samba artist. Based on new information about life during the twenty-one years of Brazil's military dictatorship, the film chronicles the separate fates of a white "political prisoner" versus a black "common criminal." Director Murat reveal how the country's epidemic of violent drug selling street gangs got their start in those fetid jail cells. A hard look at a vibrant if scary culture that is really struggling to get its shit together on race, class and poverty. A cautionary tale for much of this hemisphere. (Kabuki 4-28 & 5-1)


Up Against Them All. Writer/director Roberto Moreira gives us a fearless up close look at the unraveling life of a San Paulo crime lord.

Teodoro (Giulio Lopes) is a pious but brutal gangster who's living with his wife and rebellious teenage daughter. A professional hit man, when Teodoro murders his wife's lover (a personal friend of his) the wheels are set in motion for a Mean Streets type climax, where a man's unwillingness to accept responsibility for his actions will bring a kind of religious retribution down on him. The film is almost stolen by Ailton Graca as Teodoro's charismatic henchman, the kind of friend a psychotic bible thumping gangland killer doesn't need. A crescendo of violence rivaling Taxi Driver completes a film that spares us the politics but is unrelenting in its portrait of a modern Brazil awash in religiosity and blood. (Kabuki 4-28 & 5-2)  

Read Week 1 Coverage

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