Just after the buzz from Sundance has started to die down but before the Oscar machine has fully kicked in, you can always count on the San Francisco Independent Film Festival to offer a much-needed February palette cleaner in the midst of awards season. As Hollywood circles its wagons around a small cadre of "indie" division hopefuls and prestige titles, Indiefest provides an ever-necessary platform for big visions produced on small budgets. And the more offbeat, on-the-fly, or out-there that vision is, so much the better.
Opening night film Kaboom, the latest thrill ride from longtime indie anti-hero Gregg Araki, stays true to its title and starts off Indie Fest with a bang. Combining the sex-fueled nihilism of earlier films such as The Doom Generation (1995) with the comedic touch he so skillfully evinced in his stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007), Kaboom follows a group of horny, ornery college students who, in between lots of casual sex, stumble upon a secret doomsday plot. Totally aware of its own ridiculousness and unabashedly shameless in its adoration of its male cast members' fit physiques, Kaboom harnesses some of the same "live for the moment" joi de vivre that gave Jersey Shore some of its initial appeal.
Too bad MTV didn't hire Araki for its recent, much-maligned reboot of the controversial, teen-centric British TV drama Skins. French wunderkind Xavier Dolan—whose I Killed My Mother was the audience favorite at Frameline last year—would've been second on my shortlist. Judging by his latest film, Heartbeats, Dolan knows a thing or two about the wonderful, nasty business of being young and in love, especially when three hearts are on the line to be broken.
Another feature worth paying attention to is Greg Croteau's The Aristocrat, a small-scale answer to Oliver Stone's bloated Wall Street revisit that illustrates Wu-Tang Clan's famous mantra "Cash rules everything around me" with starling clarity and little flash. Set in1989, The Aristocrat follows veteran traveling salesman Marc Ward as he trains his brash, young successor Eddie Kent. As Marc teaches Eddie the ins-and-outs of a transitory life in which everything becomes but another product, he is forced to re-evaluate his future and his relationships with those closest to him in ways he never imagined.
Documentaries are normally one of Indiefest's strong suits, but this year's selection skews a bit too heavily toward music-related titles, compared to festivals past (perhaps there wasn't much left to book given that Docfest was only three months ago). That said, Robyn Symon's alternately engrossing and frustrating film Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard—about the controversial ’70s self help guru and former San Franciscan who founded the personal transformation system est—is one of this year's must-sees. Combining stunning archival footage of Erhard and his acolytes in action; interviews with past est participants, associates and critics; and the first filmed interview with Erhard himself in over a decade, Transformation attempts to present a balanced portrait of the man the U.S. news media was quick to hound out of the country.
If anything, Symon treats her subject with perhaps too much delicacy, giving more screen time to those singing the praises of Erhard's lasting influence (he is variously compared to Gandhi, Heidegger and Sinatra) as opposed to his detractors, while steering clear of asking too many pointed questions (for example, what is the exact nature of the consulting Erhard does for Landmark Education, the organization that formed out of est and which now runs the highly successful Landmark Forum). As for Erhard, who has the mien and demeanor of a senior level executive at Apple, he seems to have done very well for himself as a freelancer abroad. I'm sure he's appreciative of the good press.
Other docs of interest include Gainsbourg: The Man Who Loved Women. Borrowing its subtitle and premise from Francois Truffaut's 1977 comedy about a womanizer recounting his affairs, Gainsbourg playfully allows the famed French singer-songwriter, rakish superstar and unparalleled lady's man to tell his own story through skillfully edited TV clips, interviews, photos, music videos and archival snippets (of course, Gainsbourg's long line of famous paramours have their say, and plenty of it, as well). Worlds away from such Left Bank cool is Worst in Show, which follows the loveably hideous canines competing in Petaluma's annual Ugliest Dog in the World Competition. The real stars, of course, are the dogs' owners, who offer living proof that one need not be female or have a child to be a stage mom.
Of course Indiefest wouldn't be Indiefest without spilling some stage blood. Granted, titles such as Nude Nuns with Big Guns and A Horrible Way to Die promise a gory good time but leave little to the imagination. Luckily, this year's festival has plenty of brainy options, as well (and I'm not just talking zombie-fodder). What if Leatherface and his clan were a respectable, city-dwelling, middle class family? That's the premise of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau's gutsy and much anticipated cannibal melodrama We Are What We Are, in which three teenage siblings must start bringing home the bacon, as it were, once their father passes away. Closing night film The Last Circus, another tour-de-force from Spaniard Alex de la Iglesias, presents a grotesque battle between two down-and-out circus performers deeply wounded by the evils of the Spanish Civil War. And a very different kind of horror is at work in The Evangelist, in which a gay theater director adopts a 12-year old only to discover that his new son is a fanatic Evangelical Christian hell-bent on converting the locals.
Indiefest has also teamed up with local mistress of the dark Peaches Christ this year to present a special screening of Seed of Chucky, Don Mancini's much-beloved fifth installment in the Child's Play franchise that finds possessed doll Chucky getting hot and heavy with Jennifer Tilly, with both Mancini and Tilly in the house for an on-stage conversation. And if that's not lively enough for your liking, Indiefest offers, as always, an array of parties to make sure there's plenty of action off screen as well. Indeed, between donning Viking horns for the annual Big Lebowski fest, dusting off a pair of skates for the roller disco party, taking part in the MST3K-style chorus of armchair sportscasters at the first ever Super Bowl fete, raising your lighter at the Love Bites power ballad sing-along, or attending any of the Winter Musicfest's showcases of local talent, it can be hard to squeeze a film or two in edgewise. Good luck.
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