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SFIFF58: Week 1

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The New Girlfriend
Written & Directed by François Ozon
France, 2014

The latest from prolific French auteur François Ozon opens on a somber note as Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) recounts her lifelong friendship with the deceased Laura (Isild Le Besco), whose untimely death has left her grieving husband David (Romain Duris) alone with their infant daughter. Shortly after the funeral, Claire checks in on the widower and finds him all made up, wearing Laura’s dress and a blonde wig to boot. Promising not to tell her husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) about David’s cross-dressing, Claire finds herself entering uncharted territory with her late friend’s husband and no one to confide in. Beautifully shot with an eye for the little details that we associate with femininity, the film is as much an exploration of the rituals and meanings of female friendships as it is of gender, intimacy, sexuality and passion. Fluctuating constantly between moments of gravity and levity, Ozon has a tendency to get ensnared in melodrama and predictability, though not enough to derail the narrative.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

7 Chinese Brothers
Written & Directed by Bob Byington
USA, 2015

In an all too rare starring role, Jason Schwartzman plays Larry, a deadbeat alcoholic with greasy hair and no apparent ambition whose rundown car is an apt visual metaphor for his barely-holding-it-together lifestyle. Fired from Buca di Beppo for drinking from the bar’s stock and replacing the missing contents with water, Larry gets a job a nearby Quick Lube, for which he is woefully unqualified but surprisingly doesn’t fail at right away. The closest things he has to friends are his bulldog, his cantankerous grandmother and an attendant at her nursing home named Major Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe), whom Larry occasionally buys drugs from and drinks with. Byington’s script makes for a quirky dramedy with a fair amount of laugh-out-loud moments, but ultimately lacks the depth to make Larry’s journey a compelling one – a shame because Schwartzman has proven his talent in countless supporting roles. The film’s true highlights are the music by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio, Adebimpe’s deadpan humor, and a cameo by everyone’s favorite grump from Girls, Alex Karpovsky.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Welcome to Me
Written by Eliot Laurence
Directed by Shira Piven
USA, 2014

Part comedy and part cautionary tale, Welcome to Me centers on Alice (Kristen Wiig), a TV addict with borderline personality disorder who becomes an unlikely multi-millionaire after her daily ritual of buying a lottery ticket pays off. Inspired by Oprah, whom she has a venerable VHS library of, Alice teams up with a failing production studio staffed by misfits to create a talk show featuring her as both host and subject. The resulting program becomes a time for an off-med Alice to function as her own therapist, delving into her past and fulfilling her fantasies. And with money on her side, who’s to stop her on the path to self-destruction? On the one hand, the film acts as a satire of self-help and tabloid culture, but on the other could be perceived as an unflattering portrait of mental illness. Wiig combines Alice’s vulnerability and volatility to great effect, and a strong supporting cast including Wes Bentley, James Marsden and Joan Cusack help gloss over shortcomings in the writing.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Written by Jesse Andrews
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
USA, 2015

It would be too easy to compare this adaptation to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars, another coming of age story with YA literary roots that serves up a heady mix of adolescent identity crisis, cancer, friendship and self-acceptance. Narrator Greg (Thomas Mann), a self-deprecating film buff, recounts his senior year of high school, during which he and best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) become close to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the titular dying girl who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Based on Rachel’s positive response to Greg and Earl’s cinematic exploits (clever short films that are parodies of classic film titles), the duo decides to make a movie for her. This is not a love story, but even though Rachel and Greg’s relationship is platonic there are elements of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the way her character drives the plot. Funny, poignant and self-aware, Jesse Andrews’ taut writing comes across as too calculating at times, at odds with the loose, handmade aesthetics – director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon relies on intertextuality through claymation, puppetry and films within films. But the chemistry between the three young leads ensures that the story hits close to the heart.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Stations of the Cross
Written by Anna Brüggeman and Dietrich Brüggeman
Directed by Dietrich Brüggeman
Germany, 2014

Captured in fourteen vignettes intended to parallel the path of Christ to crucifixion, Stations of the Cross shows the coming of age of Maria (Lea van Acken), a teenaged girl trying to reconcile the archaic rules of her traditionalist Catholic sect with modern society. Feeling more pressured than ever to uphold her faith due to the upcoming Confirmation, Maria tries her best but can never seem to please her domineering mother. Ostracized at school for her beliefs, Maria takes comfort in her baby brother, who at four has yet to speak a word, and the family’s au pair, who provides the warmth and affection that her parents do not. As much as the film centers on religion and conviction, it also foregrounds the significance of the parent-child relationship, suggesting that love is not always enough. Despite relying heavily on long, static, wide-angle shots, director Dietrich Brüggeman successfully conveys both the protagonist’s internal and external struggles, creating narrative tension reminiscent of Ulrich Seidl’s 2012 film Paradise: Faith.


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