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International: Take 2

by David Lamble
Friday May 3, 2013
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The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival heads into its final week with a distinct array of narrative and documentary fare, both entertaining and disturbing.

Before You Know It In P.J. Raval’s witty documentary journey, we discover another America. It’s a landscape dotted by small enclaves of hardy souls, pioneers in a way, guys who are facing their journey’s end with a lot more trepidation and uncertainty than they deserve. At a Harlem center for LGBT seniors, outreach coordinator Ty explains why so many of his surviving friends are looking at gay marriage as a life raft. Ty points to a small group photo of his friends back in the 80s.

"Allan died, Bill died, Sherman died, Harriet died, Ann died. If we hadn’t been bombarded by HIV/AIDS, many of us would probably have had longer relationships. Most of my friends that I envisioned growing old together, they died!" Ty confesses that his partner of 30 years is dragging his feet about tying the knot.

Dennis lives in a shabby Florida trailer park with the relics of an active life. The one-time virile racquetball champ shyly guides us to a closet full of women’s clothes, confessing that the few social forays he makes at 78 are all in demure drag. Admitting that his home for the past 12 years is a dump filled with old folks "and meth dealers," Dennis searches senior rest-home listings from Mexico to Portland, OR.

In sunny Galveston, TX, where according to 73-year-old extrovert cross-dresser Robert, it’s "everybody do their own thing, just don’t cause any waves," a close-knit family of drag devotees gathers at Robert’s bar for weekly stage shows. "I go by ’Robert the mouth, the ugliest girl in the South.’ My father was a deacon of the Southern Baptist Church." Coming out, he recalls crying, "You can take your religion and shove it up your ass!"

Known mostly as a cinematographer (the anthology quartet Fourplay ), Raval discovers the big picture in this trio’s stories. In a fast-changing social landscape for queers, LGBT seniors still face a tough time finding resources and companionship to last a lifetime. (Kabuki, 5/3, 5, 9)

The Strange Little Cat "Is Clara crazy?" "Is the cat?" A rambunctious little girl who screams whenever a kitchen appliance is switched on, and a tawny tabby who’s a shameless scene-stealer, become focuses in Ramon Zurcher’s surreal dive into the routines of a middle-class Berlin family. This debut feature hums along at a meditative 70 minutes. We learn that Mutter (Jenny Schily, with an uncanny resemblance to Tilda Swinton) has spent a bizarre night at the movies: a strange man unconsciously put his foot down over hers. Apparently there was no hidden erotic motive, and the incident ended blissfully with a loud horn on the soundtrack. The noise awakened Grandma, asleep in the next seat. The perpetually dozing, the flirtatious boy/girl cousins, and a dainty tattoo on the shoulder of schoolboy Jonas, all contribute to this engrossing portrait of a modern German extended family. (Kabuki, 5/5, 8)

Computer Chess Mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski outdoes himself with an oddly paced comedy about the goings-on at a 1980 computer chess tournament. If Fox-TV’s classic Undeclared or CBS’ hit The Big Bang Theory are too nerdy for your taste, then avoid the brainy, awkwardly dressed fellows in this techie howler shot in grainy B&W. The chess players are the show. From an aggressive religious stalker who sleeps in the hotel lobby to a nervous bright boy hounded by a swinging couple, to a programmer upset that his software may have been tampered with (an adept cameo from Richard Linklater regular Wiley Wiggins), this eccentric giggle-fest is an instant cult classic. (Kabuki, 5/2, 4)
Donald Sutherland in a scene from Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Film Society

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Bay Area guru Philip Kaufman re-imagines the 1950s pod-people classic in a San Francisco that was on the eve of the AIDS epidemic. The film’s poster shot, the sight of Donald Sutherland frozen in fear, contrasts neatly with the persona perfected by the 70s’ hippest screen performer, from M*A*S*H’s wisecracking military surgeon to Conrad Jarrett’s grounded dad in Ordinary People.

Where the Don Siegel-directed original keyed off 1950s Middle America’s obsession with Communists under every bed, this eye-popping remake toys with a space-alien motif whose gooey special effects anticipate David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly. Invasion features a sexier, was he ever that young? Jeff Goldblum. (Castro, 5/5)

Crystal Fairy In this Michael Cera career reboot, one of two films he recently shot in Chile, the talented Canadian comic actor slips into the persona of Jamie, a self-absorbed North American kid whose Chilean road trip is complicated by drugs and a female free spirit. The direction is in the capable hands of Sebastian Silva (The Maids). (Kabuki, 5/7, 8)

God Loves Uganda I confess to having waited as long as possible before diving into Roger Ross Williams’ engrossing but thoroughly depressing doc on the role of U.S. "fundies" in encouraging anti-gay hate crimes in the heart of Africa. Those who treasure memories of IHOP pancakes are in for a rude update. At least in Kansas City, it now stands for the International House of Prayer. The youth converts to the sect’s mega-church are seen preparing themselves for a missionary trek to a Central African country poached on by Western explorers since the fevered days of the British East Africa Company. Williams implies that white youth find Uganda a safe, non-Muslim bastion where their preaching won’t be violently rebuffed.

The film reveals a nation still reeling from AIDS and the cruel legacy of the murderous despot Idi Amin. Heroic Uganda religious leaders explain how an American moral crusade can fan long-simmering domestic hatreds, prompting calamities like the murder of gay rights activist David Kato. (Kabuki, 5/6, 7, 9)

Youth Late in this sensitively constructed memoir piece from Justine Malle, daughter of the late French director Louis Malle, a young woman recovers from a coughing jag prompted by sharing a joint with her mom, to confess her frustration with a pretty boy from school. "I didn’t expect a proposal, but to leave right after - it was my first time."

Critics have complained that this first effort leans too heavily on stylistic riffs from the French New Wave, such as a playful moment when Juliette (Esther Garrell) is re-infatuated with the elusive rude boy (Emile Bertherat) during a feverish dance whirl to Bob Dylan’s "I Want You." But at a brisk 72 minutes, Youth is a diverting first draft from a daughter just beginning to grapple with her famous dad’s legacy. How does one compete with a father capable of such works of genius as Murmur of the Heart? (Kabuki, 5/3, 4)

Before Midnight In the opening moments of this eagerly awaited third segment of Richard Linklater’s popular Jesse & Celine trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), confused, guilty dad Jesse (Ethan Hawke) lavishes affection and treats on his teen son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), headed back to his birth mom. Leaving the terminal, Jesse finds his French family waiting in the car: Celine (Julie Delpy) and their sleeping twin girls. During the long drive back to their Greek summer retreat, the memory of the "neglected"" son will poke through, competing with Celine’s growing fury that she’s expected to surrender her dreams in favor of a new life in Hank’s home, Chicago, USA.

This daring third film, with long, talky takes packed with juicy asides, wrestles with just how far an extended family can stretch before unraveling from too many diverse tugs on frail hearts. (Closing Night, Castro, 5/9)

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