Note to Robert Redford: Just because Christina Ricci produced a film doesn’t make it a real independent. The San Francisco Independent Film Festival always eschews celebrity vanity projects like Ricci’s Pumpkin, tall in its encouragement of real indie films, bringing us this year a strange brew of animation, shorts, and feature films for the masses — all without the support of your local coffee house or nearest major conglomerate.
On its opening night to a packed house at the Castro in San Francisco, SFIFF 2002 debuted with promising mockumentary Since the World Ended (). The film tackles the concept of a group of filmmakers roving the streets of San Francisco documenting the 186 known survivors within the city twelve years after a plague has wiped out virtually the entire world population. The establishing shots of empty San Francisco streets and digitally enhanced images of derelict bridges and harbor ships are downright spooky. But after the novelty of the premise wears off, the jerky cinematography and Blair Witch subplot get old. The hokey ending — which shows the survivors watching the film in the same theater – the Castro – that the film was currently being screened in is downright goofy.
I caught up with the latest efforts from Bill Plympton’s Animation Studios in the form of the ridiculous, deranged, and dangerous animation feature Mutant Aliens (). The film is reminiscent of his other features –The Tune and I Married A Strange Person — a simple tale of an astronaut, his daughter, and five violent, yet kindhearted, alien creatures seeking retribution against a crazed czar of the United States space program. Too bad, in typical Plympton style, it’s so overloaded it ends up merely kooky.
Not many people remember or even recognize the infamous avant-garde music group Einstuerzende Neubauten, one of the most influential German bands of the late 20th century. A surprise hit at the festival, the intriguing documentary Listen With Pain () chronicles one of industrial music’s pioneers’ twenty years of history, producing eclectic and disturbing soundscapes from steel drums, sledgehammers against concrete, and steel springs beaten by iron bars. Candid interviews with lead singer Blixa Bargeld (co-founder of the Bad Seeds with Nick Cave) and key members of the band, including percussionist F.M. Einheit, paint introspective narratives detailing how political uprising and personal vendettas against the foundations of social order helped fuel the band’s messages and methods.
Another gem of the festival was the hypnotic and beautifully tragic Western tale of The Journeyman (). The rugged and complex tale of two young brothers separated by violence and the paths each take on the road of life towards their own intertwining destinies is expertly crafted by director James Crowley. By tossing in a few contemporary twists and turns along its solid narrative, the film delivers the bounty of violence, retribution, and redemption in fine Western form.
The mockumentary To Protect and Serve () revolves around a first-time director documenting the lives of two LAPD officers working the ugly streets of L.A. The film attempts to develop interesting case studies with such quirks as an uncontrollable passion for cooking, the death of a mariachi band, and the love of a whore, but it fails miserably. The predictable storylines and mind-numbing subplots slowly dwindle down the film’s potential, and a nihilistic ending only compound the problems.
The most disturbing feature of the festival was the brilliant documentary by Penelope Spheeris (director of Wayne’s World and The Decline of the Western Civilization series) – We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll (). It’s an amazing and detailed two-year diary detailing loyal music fans, business managers, rock star musicians, and the enigma known as Ozzy Osbourne. It’s also an unflinching look at Middle America’s undying loyalty to the mullet haircut, mosh pits, and the sadistic messages of the new corporate rock genre. Interviews with Slipknot, Static X, System of a Down, Slayer, and the gods of metal – Black Sabbath – paint interesting pictures of the costs individuals must pay to spread music to the masses.
The best film of the festival came in the form of Blue Spring (), a complex and metaphorical Japanese film by acclaimed director Toyoda Toshiaki. Set in an all-boys’ high school, class hierarchy is determined by a clapping game, in which the students gather on the rooftop of the prison-like school to clap as many times as they can before falling off the edge of a railing. The winner is bestowed the leadership of the school and coordinates the disciplinary efforts towards governing the school’s student body. Set to a Japanese punk music soundtrack, the film delivers insightful dialogues regarding the microcosm of high school and the dreams and failures of its populace. Highly recommended.
Two sub-par features of the festival were the highly anticipated British import South West 9 () and the innocuous serial-killer feature 97 Brooks (). Both films suffer from poor direction, flat storylines, and an ever-increasing urge to reach for a fast-forward button that isn’t there.
The topper for the festival was the slick and entertaining Chinese Midnight Movie Bio-Cops (). The story revolves around Chinese-American mad scientists building invincible super soldiers to sell on the black market. When a scientist is bit by a test subject and evolves into ‘Zombie New Human,’ a derelict police station become ground zero for zombie mayhem. Body parts begin to fly, cops and Chinese triad members transform into killing machines, numerous Hong Kong punchlines fall flat, and the horror never stops — all while the white subtitles fade into obscurity.Read More