SF IndieFest brings off-kilter films to San Francisco, Berkeley

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The annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. Its penchant for showcasing alternative and subversive pieces of cinema has helped it become one of the most important festivals around the nation. From the psychological odyssey “Simon Killer” to the gang-epic “Days of Grace,” 2013 proves just as likely to offer rich, engaging and slightly off-kilter films.

— Braulio Ramirez, lead film critic

Days of Grace

Showtimes: 
Feb. 16, 7:16 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 19, 9:31 p.m., Roxie Theatre

Murder. Vengeance. Soccer. All of this and more is intimately linked in director Everardo Valerio Gout’s gritty Spanish-language thriller. The story is divided into three sections which are elaborately woven together over three different World Cups, taking place in the years 2002, 2006 and 2010. Gripping cinematography brings the Mexico City as seen in newspapers and CNN headlines to life in vivid detail. The film brazenly depicts the gang world and everyday struggle of those caught in the crossfire to remain honest in a system scarred by corruption.

Following the stories of three sets of characters, the film provides an intense look into the crooked destinations of even the purest of intentions. One stand-out vignette follows the trajectory of an honest cop (Tenoch Huerta) trying to protect his family while stopping the hierarchy of corruption in his own department. Other stories in the film involve a brutal kidnapping and a vengeful wife who will stop at nothing to keep her family together.

Phenomenal acting lights up a revolving narrative that can sometimes be hard to follow due to its disjointed nature. Great writing keeps the viewer entranced until the breathtaking finale where the surprising connections between all stories are revealed. A few twists are expertly employed and provide satisfying payoffs to their lengthy build-ups . The story might dabble at times into a world of hyperbole, but it’s a wild ride worth taking.

— Ryan Koehn

The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus

Showtimes:
Feb. 9, 2:45 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 10, 5 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 11, 7 p.m., Shattuck Cinemas

“The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus” is a film that begins with an ending: the tragic passing of Europe’s most beloved clairvoyant cephalopod, Paul. In life, Paul captured the hearts of soccer fans across the European continent and beyond by correctly predicting the outcome of eight matches, including the 2010 World Cup. Staff at the Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany put two boxes in Paul’s tank, each labeled with flag of a competing team’s country and let the octopus pick the winner. Paul’s power of foresight, which delighted fans and infuriated bookies, launched him to instant fame. The biopic, written and directed by Alexandre O.Phillipe, features commentary from “animal communicators”, psychics, statisticians and soccer players which is equal parts informative and hilariously bizarre.

If the whole thing sounds a bit silly, it’s because it is. The height of Paul’s celebrity went beyond what anyone expected. Not only did he have his own personal manager, but the tentacled seer was also given the honorary title of “The Illustrious Octopus of Carballino” in Spain. Whether Paul was a genuine animal oracle or a complete sham may never be determined, but the spectacle he created brought to the forefront of public discussion questions about the validity of prophecy, the science of statistics and the nature of fame. The film could easily have dissolved into mockery, but Philipe tells the story of Germany’s most beloved mollusk with enough wit, humor and warmth to charm even the biggest skeptics.

— Grace Lovio

Simon Killer

Showtimes:
Feb. 10, 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 11, 9 p.m., Shattuck Cinemas
Feb. 13, 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theatre

Antonio Campos’ cold, reticent direction lends “Simon Killer” an eerie, unpalatable nature that sometimes benefits the psychological odyssey, but more often distances the audience. This Franco-American drama follows an American college-grad, Simon, on a Parisian visit. Simon noses around the city like an unguided missile until he hones in on a French prostitute, Victoria. They kindle an  unusual connection. We observe Simon gradually, advantageously gaining control over this seedy whore’s life. Victoria slowly realizes that underneath Simon’s narcotized boredom lies a brittle and unstable human being spiraling out of control. Gradually, all hell breaks loose.

The film’s weary, almost toxic atmosphere makes it unsurprising that Simon turns out to be a case study for sociopathy. Stories like “Simon Killer” that probe deep into an individual’s psychology sometimes warrant keeping certain character and plot specifics obscured because it increases suspense. Campos, however, doesn’t prove the shrewd manipulator this complex tale needs. He irritates by unnecessarily withholding information that would otherwise make Simon’s journey more intriguing, even significant. Campos indulges in unusual framing devices that contribute nothing to the story. He repeatedly shoots the backs of heads, which only add anxiety and fuzziness. The heavy techno-rock soundtrack further distracts from the tone.

Not all of “Simon Killer” proves unsavory. There are seductive moments between Simon and Victoria that feel like magical fragments mired within a messy whole. With more focus, Campos might have weaved and connected these magical moments into a succinct story; but this one, unfortunately, is mostly lush and pretentious.

— Braulio Ramirez

All the Light in the Sky

Showtimes:
Feb. 9, 9 p.m., Shattuck Cinemas
Feb. 17, 7:16 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb 21, 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theatre

Well-established indie director Joe Swanson’s looks at the harsh, disappointing realities of being an aging actress in Hollywood. The story follows Marie, the semi-true representation of the real life actress Jane Adams who plays her. Long, voyeuristic shots unfold on her as she personifies the stagnant portrait of a jaded artist. Her young, attractive niece Faye (Sophia Takal) comes to visit from New York with dreams of following in her aunt’s footsteps. The comparison between the two is inevitable. Faye, who is driven, beautiful and enamored with the idea of becoming famous is oblivious to the lukewarm unhappiness that has settled into her aunt. They live side by side while simultaneously trying to figure out what their lives are all about.

The film starts with a good set-up and a promising premise, but unfortunately the budget shows. Flat acting, tepid camerawork and a plot that rambles before eventually going nowhere are only the beginning of the problems that prevent this film from living up to its provocative title. Lengthy, uninterrupted shots meant to present life realistically instead only verify a sacred mantra of cinema since its invention: it’s wholly uninteresting to watch people doing nothing. A loose script meant to sound like real conversation comes off dull and painful, while many scenes are under-directed and awkward. The film succeeds in depicting the lackluster career of the protagonist, but its execution suffers from the same mediocrity it tries to warn the viewer to avoid.

— Ryan Koehn

Antiviral

Showtimes:
Feb. 9, 7:16 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 12, 9:31 p.m., Roxie Theatre
Feb. 13, 9 p.m., Shattuck Cinemas

It’s no mystery that Americans are obsessed with celebrities. Tabloids, entertainment “news” and especially celebrity scandals — I’m looking at you, Lance Armstrong — are the bread and butter of many people’s media diet. But it’s not just an American phenomenon. Take, for instance, South Korea, where double eyelid surgery is all the rage thanks to the example set by K-Pop artists (who are, in turn, influenced by Western standards of beauty).

Enter “Antiviral,” a Canadian-produced satire on our celebrity addiction. Directed by Brandon Cronenburg, the film follows Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a technician at Lucas Clinic Inc., which specializes in the sale of celebrity infectious diseases to fans, many of them figuratively, if not infectiously, rabid. March also sells diseases on the black market at great personal cost.

“Antiviral” is crisply shot, its cinematography at odds with the grimy, unscrupulous world where illness is currency. Jones is a gangly, sickly specter who drags himself, bleeding and leaking, through 108 minutes of cringe-worthy grunt work in the dirty disease business. Repulsed by the world he lives in and repulsive in his actions, which serve to perpetuate the nauseating social conventions, Syd is no hero. He is victim and villain all in one, with a slow, mumbled drawl made less and less intelligible as the film progresses thanks to phlegm and blood. But for all the nausea and grossness, this is not an ugly movie. A commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture, “Antiviral” is a lusty, gorgeous film.

— Natalie Reyes