Home, But Not Alone 

Why the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is not necessarily like Macaulay Culkin.

Blame it on global economic troubles if you must — or simply chalk it up to coincidence — but the San Francisco International Film Festival appears to be sticking a little closer to home this year.

That is, if your idea of home alone is 151 films from 55 countries in 34 languages, with ten world premieres, some 200 filmmakers and movie industry guests, and an opening night screening of Peter Bratt's La Mission (Thursday, April 23, 7 p.m. at the Castro). The San Francisco Film Society, governing body of the festival, casts a wide net and strives mightily for cosmopolitan unpredictability. But there's no denying a certain "gotta get back to the base" feeling in the 52nd annual edition of the festival.

It's there in the Founder's Directing Award to Francis Ford Coppola, the Bay Area's grand old man of moviemaking, as well as the Peter J. Owens Award for acting to Robert Redford, who's bringing along a print of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (April 29 at the Castro). Coppola's big night takes the form of an on-stage moderated bull session with more local leading lights — Star Wars king George Lucas, editor extraordinaire Walter Murch, and screenwriter Matthew Robbins — May 1 at the Castro.

The keep-it-local vibe extends to the programming. Ferlinghetti, Sausalito filmmaker Jack Felver's documentary profile of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, San Francisco's poet laureate and North Beach renaissance man ("Don't call me a Beat. I was never a Beat," he declares), enjoys a world premiere engagement at the PFA (May 6) and the Kabuki (April 28). Felver and Ferlinghetti appear in person for the Kabuki show. Down in the city's seething Tenderloin, Bay Area documentarians Allie Light and Irving Saraf introduce us to the colorful residents of the Empress Hotel, an Eddy Street home for the homeless. Once upon a time the Prince of Wales visited the Empress and so can you, vicariously, April 25, 27, and 29 at the Kabuki.

North Oakland in all its bland glory is the setting for Frazer Bradshaw's Everything Strange and New, the mind-numbingly slow, deliberate story of a sad-sack construction worker named Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), who's suffering from the economic blues. Indie director of photography Bradshaw wrote, directed, and shot it, and the East Bay's Dan Plonsey supplied the appealing music. Oddly, it plays only at the Kabuki (April 26 and 28, May 2). Then there's David Lee Miller's My Suicide, a "self-inflicted comedy" in which video-obsessed teenager Archie (Gabriel Sunday) conquers both his suicidal urge and his horniness with help from a fellow sufferer named Sierra (Brooke Nevin). No wonder he wants to kill himself — his nagging mom is Nora Dunn, overdoing it as usual. Also in the squandered supporting cast: Joe Mantegna as a shrink with a corny accent and David Carradine as the shaman. My Suicide has three showings at the Kabuki (May 1, 5, and 6).

Bay Area writer and composer Jonathan Parker is responsible for perhaps the festival's funniest comedy, (Untitled), or, as we call it, Art School Confidential Goes for Its Doctorate. A laughably pretentious composer of modernist "attack pieces" (Adam Goldberg); his brother, a frustrated painter of canvases for corporate anterooms (Eion Bailey); a computer millionaire collector of howlingly awful artworks (Zak Orth); and a vinyl-skirted Macchiavelli of a gallerista named Madeleine (Marley Shelton) thrash around madly in the Lower Manhattan art scene, leaving a trail of headaches and ruptured careers. April 24, 25, and 27 at the Kabuki.

One of the very best films in the 2009 SFIFF is likely to be overlooked because it's resolutely anticommercial. Lee Anne Schmitt's thought-provoking California Company Town consists of deadpan documentary visits to a series of California communities, now mostly ghost towns, whose destinies were shaped by one industry: lumber towns, oil towns, prison towns, military towns, mining towns, cotton towns, steel towns, a former socialist utopian society in Sequoia National Park, and, sadly, the site of the WWII Japanese-American internment camp in Manzanar. In its austere procession of lonely images with spare voiceover narration, this travelogue of crushed hopes resembles another masterpiece of politically progressive essay filmmaking, the John Gianvito/Howard Zinn Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, which screened at the 2008 festival. Incidentally, Schmitt teaches at California Institute of the Arts. You have three chances to see this remarkable documentary: April 30 at the PFA, and May 2 and 4 at the Kabuki.

The French contingent always makes a strong showing at the SF International. In addition to the West Coast premiere of Claire Denis' intriguingly-titled drama 35 Shots of Rum, at least two of the 21 French films in the festival are worth lining up for. Catherine Breillat, whose The Last Mistress at last year's fest showed what can be accomplished by a bit of 18th-century literature garnished with Asia Argento, returns with a genuine fairy tale, Bluebeard. Based on Charles Perrault's 17th-century children's tale about a shy but courageous young teenager (Lola Creton) who goes to live in a castle with a hairy, fearsome nobleman (Dominique Thomas) rumored to have killed his wives, Breillat's story-within-a-story delights in its narrative games. This mischievous little feminist parable, weighing in at a slender 78 minutes, wraps worlds of myth and wonder in its bedtime terrors. It's highly recommended. April 24, 25, and 29 at the Kabuki.

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