SF International Film Festival

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Much Ado About Nothing

When one thinks of Shakespeare, the mind doesn’t naturally bend toward the sci-fi/supernatural wunderkind Joss Whedon. Known primarily for his forays into television (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly”) and recent comic book box-office success with “The Avengers,” it seemed a slight surprise when it was announced his next project would be a low-key, black-and-white adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Now, this is not because Whedon is a stranger to comedy. “Buffy,” “Firefly,” “The Avengers” and “Cabin in the Woods” all share Whedon’s sense of wry irreverence. But Shakespeare’s sense of humor is an entirely different bag. There’s a distance, linguistically and culturally, and his use of the material verbatim, set in a modern-day Italian-style villa, only serves to enhance this disconnect.

Instead of the broader, more musically inclined vision found in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation, Whedon takes things down a notch. The tone is far more subdued. Soft, seductive jazz replaces the bombast of horns found in Branagh’s endeavor. Low, unexpected camera angles offer an air of film noir to the proceedings of Shakespeare’s absurd plot. But these facets only make for a semi enjoyable, if somewhat slow, viewing experience. It’s the chemistry between leads Alexis Denishof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice that distinguish Whedon’s version.

The naive, masculine bravado that Denishof exudes matches so delightfully well with Acker’s sly, astute wit that the “merry war” betwixt their characters becomes — aside from a few, well-played scenes by Nathan Fillion as the asinine constable Dogberry — the only colorful highlight in this movie of muted mirth.

— Jessica Pena
Monday, April 29, 3:30 p.m. @ New People Cinema

Frances Ha

Long before Lena Dunham, writer and director Noah Baumbach understood the plight of the postcollege 20-something. In his debut film, “Kicking and Screaming,” he perfected the listless malaise of youthful urbanites with a clean, subtle style. And since, he has continued to distill the type of sardonic languor embodied by his most well-known leads — Bernard Berkman in “The Squid and The Whale” and Steve Zissou in ‘The Life Aquatic.” Now, Baumbach gives us Frances, the titular character of his latest opus “Frances Ha.”

Played by the ever-effervescent Greta Gerwig, Frances could be seen along the lines of Baumbach’s previous protagonists. She’s in her ‘20s. She’s unsure, awkward and in need of direction. She’s charming but indelicate, identified as a dancer but with questionable talent. She’s a contradiction but one that effortlessly intrigues without demanding the audience’s attention the way Hannah Horvath of “Girls” would.

This comparison to “Girls” seems inevitable. Adam Driver does perform shirtless in both works. But, the comparison isn’t necessary. “Frances Ha” owes much more of its look, tone and humor to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or the intimate dialogues in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” It is as much an exercise in character as it is an auteur expression. More than any other work from Baumbach, “Frances Ha” teems with optimism, joy and unexpected audacity.

In one scene, the camera tracks Gerwig leaping across the crosswalks of New York set to the tune of a catchy pop song. It’s funny, beautiful, enthusiastic but most of all, it’s infectious. Despite the black-and-white film (though it is gorgeous in its composition), “Frances Ha” is Baumbach’s most colorful and warm-hearted picture to date.

— Jessica Pena
Thursday, May 2, 6:30 p.m. @ Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
Friday, May 3, 4 p.m. @ Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

Before Midnight

Perhaps what surprises the most out of “Before Midnight” is how profoundly Jesse and Celine have aged from the storybook lovers in “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004). At the core, they’re still the same people. Jesse hasn’t lost that youthful placidity and cock-of-the-walk charm that won Celine over. And 18 years later, young Celine’s neurotic effervescence still feeds her thoughts and moods. What’s changed is that now we sense a well-concealed anxiety and disillusionment behind Jesse’s eyes. And Celine’s entire body seems to be bogged down by something stronger than herself: Middle-age realities have dampened her soul. These people are still attractive in every sense of the word, but 18 years of life have exacerbated their neuroses.

Unlike the first two movies, “Before Midnight” has Jesse and Celine have long and hefty conversations with people other than themselves. Our time with them doesn’t involve an extended walk-and-talk, during which every step they take feels precious. The elephant in the room is no longer a clock winding down the seconds, but an 18-year history that has turned their relationship from a picturesque romance into a three-dimensional partnership. Their conversations feel weightier now, especially as a fight ensues, during which the two pull scabs every time they seem to calm down. It’s ironic then that now that they’re together, their relationship feels more on the line than it ever did.

We left “Before Sunrise” wondering whether Jesse and Celine would actually meet again in six months. We left “Before Sunset” wondering whether Jesse missed his flight to stay with Celine. In “Before Midnight,” the fate of their relationship doesn’t concern us as much as the thought of just how much these two individuals have changed over the years.

— Braulio Ramirez
Thursday, May 9, 7 p.m. @ Castro Theater

The Kings of Summer

“The Kings of Summer” follows three teenage boys who embark on an unusual adventure during a high school summer. The all-too-familiar impatience of growing up drives their decisions. They are fifteen years old, the odd age when you feel not only disconnected from everyone around you but also from yourself. Joe Toy, the leader, can barely tolerate his widowed father, Frank. His best friend Patrick shares a similar resentment toward his off-kilter parents, whose relentless perkiness is fun to watch but must be unbearable to live with 24/7. Joe convinces Patrick to run away and build a house in the middle of the woods where they can live like true men. With the help of a tag-along classmate named Biaggio they manage to build a funhouse in a secluded meadow.

Much of the film draws its laughs from the group’s failed attempts to completely adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They’re able to build animal traps, but once the time to kill comes they chicken out and buy food from a local market. The grownups also drive many of the laughs with idiosyncrasies that feel borrowed from sitcoms like “Parks and Recreation” and “Arrested Development.” The actors though are comedic veterans that know just how to engage us with their odd humor.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s film is not in any way original. We’ve seen this kind of film about teenage angst many times, and the coming-of-age arc feels trite. Even before the boys escape into the woods, we already know where the story will go. But if it isn’t original, Vogt-Roberts writes thorny and sensitive characters that make the film a light and comic pleasure.

— Braulio Ramirez

Key of Life
The key to the brilliance of Japanese director Kenji Uchida’s genre-blended crime comedy “Key of Life” is its carefully, and quirkily, crafted characters. While the plot might be a tried and unoriginal formula (what happens if a failed actor accidentally switches identities with a jet-set hit man?) the way that the characters react to their “Trading Places” situations is surprisingly fresh.

Masato Sakai plays Sakurai, the troubled thespian, who is first introduced by the thump of his body hitting the floor of his apartment beside a torn noose. This serves as a wonderful presentation of just one more thing he cannot succeed at. His foil is the sleek, business-first, gun-for-hire Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa). Due to a bizarre moment of coincidence, Kondo ends up in the hospital with amnesia, and Sakurai is given a new lease on life, with Kondo’s name, life and toys at his disposal.

From here on out, the audience is given two separate storylines that seem like very different movies. One is a dark comedy thriller, as Sakurai’s undisciplined ways and naivete quickly land him in over his head in his new profession. The other resembles a romantic comedy between Kondo’s clean-slate amnesiac and a meticulous career-woman portrayed with perfect anal retentive precision by Ryoko Hirosue. The two stories collide as Sakurai is forced to help rehabilitate Kondo, who believes that he is actually the suicidal Sakurai. Uchida knows to let the dark humor unfold in the situations naturally unfold, as some of the best moments occur when Kondo laments to Sakurai what an absolute loser he must have been.

With inventive shots and brisk pacing, the story stays unpredictable and engaging. While the ending takes the easy road, the build-up is something worth watching.
— Ryan Koehn
Wednesday, May 1, 6 p.m. @ Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
Thursday, May 2, 8:30 p.m. @ Sundance Kabuki Cinemas