The ninth annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival began in earnest with the regional premiere of David Lynch’s latest journey into the apparently bottomless depths of his teeming imagination, "Inland Empire."
If you missed it, fear not — Lynch’s brand name all but guarantees that his "Empire," a typically perplexing slice of noir, will be more widely circulated. (It screens next week at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco.) But for younger, less established filmmakers, the festival, which runs through Tuesday at various theaters, represents a unique opportunity to promote the kind of art-house movies that rarely land at a theater near you.
"Mojave Phone Booth" (screening at noon Sunday at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St.) isone such film. Director John Putch’s study of four troubled Las Vegas dwellers who independently travel to a mystical phone booth in the desert to satisfy their need to communicate is endearingly quirky, with seasoned character actors including Annabeth Gish, Christine Elise and "Police Academy" legend Steve Guttenberg.
It’s not always the easiest of rides — Putch’s barren landscape is inhabited by lost souls who escape their loneliness only through late-night phone confessionals with Greta, a random stranger who serves as the therapeutic voice of reason. But as an ultimately hopeful vision of humanity, it is surprisingly moving.
No film festival would be complete without some harrowing tale about the dangers of drugs, and Billy Samoa Saleebey’s "Rolling" (at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Victoria), a documentary-style feature about eight Southern California youths caught in the throes of Ecstacy addiction, fits the bill nicely. Saleebey’s camerawork is stylish, and his script is briskly paced and concise … until his characters begin their nightly descent into chemical delirium. From there, the movie carefully examines the disorienting highs that serve only as prelude to the inevitable lows.
The addicts of "Rolling" get off easy compared with Bob and Wendi Petersen, who attract the unwanted attention of the psycho next door in "Neighborhood Watch" (at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Victoria). Courtesy of San Mateo native Graeme Whifler, who previously directed music videos for the Residents and Oingo Boingo, the film is hardly for the squeamish, with its aggressively repellent depictions of unnecessary surgery and graphic mutilation. Horror fans who savor splatter should be satisfied, though. Or they can opt for the more varied approach of "Special (Creepy) Talents" (4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Victoria), a collection of five short-length celebrations of the bizarre, including "Chickenfut," intriguingly billed as a "cautionary tale of a boy, his chicken and their paranormal quest for barnyard justice."
For a more cerebral approach to horror, try "S&Man," director J.T. Petty’s exploration of voyeurism and the popular fascination with extreme violence. (It screens at 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Victoria.) Through interviews with psychologists and the actors and producers who specialize in underground fetish films, Petty, who wrote the screenplay for "Batman Begins," examines our appreciation of snuff, establishing a convincing link between hardcore sleaze and more mainstream fare like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Scary? Not necessarily, but certainly unsettling for fans forced to confront the roots of their love of revulsion.
Portland-based filmmaker Nick Peterson quietly tries to reinvent the musical in "Yellow," a modern boy-meets-girl story featuring seven original songs. Although not entirely successful, the movie, which was filmed live (i.e., no dubbing) in a cozy, colorful apartment, has some quirky, grassroots appeal. The movie screens at noon today and 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St.
Indiefest tickets are $10 general; five-film passes are $45 and 10-film passes are $80. For details and the complete schedule, visit www.sfindie.com.