San Francisco International Film Festival
The 48th annual San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 5. Venues are the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post, S.F.; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, S.F.; Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon, S.F.; Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, S.F.; PFA Theater, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Aquarius Theatre, 430 Emerson, Palo Alto. Tickets (most shows $7.50-12) can be purchased at the Kabuki, at the Virgin Megastore (Two Stockton, S.F.), by calling (925) 866-9559, or by visiting www.sffs.org. For commentary, see "Reelin' and Rockin'. All times p.m. unless otherwise noted.
Kabuki A Doula Story 10am. Boxers and Ballerinas 2. Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa 3:15. Beyond Our Ken 3:30. Tempus Fugit 4:30. Omagh 5:45. Black Friday 6. La petite chartreuse 6:15. The Search for the Captain 7:15. Dealer 8:30. The Intruder 8:45. Hawaii, Oslo 9:15. My Mother, the Mermaid 9:30.
Castro The Idolmaker with "Film Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing: Taylor Hackford" 7:30.
PFA Cinévardaphoto 7. When the Tide Comes In 9.
Kabuki Duck Season 10am. "Revelations" (shorts program) 12:45. Champions 3:45. King's Game 3:45. In the Battlefields 4. Shepherds' Journey into the Third Millennium 5. Of Love and Eggs 6. "Exquisite Luminance" (shorts program) 6:15. Almost Brothers 6:30. Princess of Mount Ledang 8. A Social Genocide 8:45. Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 9:15. Up Against Them All 9:30.
Kanbar Murderball 7:30.
PFA Sequins 7. The Last Mitterrand 9.
Kabuki "Small Tails and Tall Tails" (shorts program) 10am. Hawaii, Oslo 12:45. The Search for the Captain 12:45. The Boys of Baraka 1. Harvest Time 1:45. Relativity 3:15. My Mother, the Mermaid 3:45. The Intruder 4. Days and Hours 4:15. "Small Tails and Tall Tails" 6. Duck Season 6:30. Murderball 7. Czech Dream 7:15. "Split Screen: Two Films by Amir Mohammad" 8:45. Delamu 9:15. Mouth to Mouth 9:30. The Riverside 9:45. Phil the Alien midnight.
Castro Yes with "Peter J. Owens Award: Joan Allen" 7:30.
PFA Shape of the Moon 4:30. Midwinter Night's Dream 7. Días de Santiago 9:05.
Kabuki "Sneak Peak Three" 11am. The Boys of Baraka 12:45. Layer Cake 1. Dear Enemy 1:30. Crash with "Paul Haggis: Master Class in Screenwriting" 2. The Forest for the Trees 3:45. "Youth Voices and Visions" (shorts program) 3:45. Duck Season 4:15. Sepet 6. Abel Raises Cain 6:30. Three Times Two 6:45. Champions 7. Crónicas 9. Kept and Dreamless 9:15. Life in a Box 9:15. Midwinter Night's Dream 9:45. Izo midnight.
Castro In Casablanca, Angels Don't Fly noon. Rolling Family 2:30. The White Diamond 6:15. Saraband 8:45.
PFA The Hero 1. The Power of Nightmares 3:25. Los muertos 7:15. Black Friday 9.
Kabuki The Gravel Road 1:15. The Riverside 1:30. The Power of Nightmares with "Persistence of Vision Award: Adam Curtis" 2. Nelson Freire 3. "Seminar: Malaysian Cinema: A New Independence?" 3:15. In the Battlefields 3:30. "Relativity" (shorts program) 3:45. Whisky Romeo Zulu 6. Harvest Time 6:15. Boxers and Ballerinas 6:30. The Joy of Life 6:45. Almost Brothers 8:45. Me and You and Everyone We Know 9. Following Sean 9:15. Monday Morning Glory 9:15.
PFA Delamu 1:15. A Social Genocide 3:40. Days and Hours 6:25. The Intruder 8:45.
Aquarius My Mother, the Mermaid noon. Hawaii, Oslo 2:30. King's Game 5:30. Chokher Bali: A Passion Play 8.
Kabuki Czech Dream 12:30. The White Diamond 12:45. Phil the Alien 1:15. Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 2:45. The Forest for the Trees 3. Up Against Them All 3:15. Take My Eyes 3:30. Tempus Fugit 5:45. Omar and Pete 6. Omagh 6:30. The Hero 8:45. Rolling Family 9. The Real Dirt on Farmer John 9:15. In Casablanca, Angels Don't Fly 9:30.
PFA Pilgrimage and Kamancheh 7. Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa 9:20.
Aquarius Of Love and Eggs 6:30. Champions 9.
Kabuki Izo 12:45. Boxers and Ballerinas 1. Kept and Dreamless 3. "Split Screen: Two Films by Amir Mohammad" 3:15. Mouth to Mouth 3:45. Off to War and Facing the Dead 5:15. Nelson Freire 5:45. Crónicas 6:45. A Doula Story 7. The World 8:30. Private 9. Waves 9:15. Days and Hours 9:45.
PFA Me and You and Everyone We Know 7. "Exquisite Luminance" 9:20.
Aquarius In the Battlefields 7. The Riverside 9:30.
*Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room See Movie Clock. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Smith Rafael.
*The Girl from Monday In some near-future dystopia, corporate America, in the guise of a giant conglomerate called Triple M (for "multimedia monopoly"), has finally liberated the United States. So long live the consumer revolution! Now "disposable income is the chief revolutionary virtue," and nothing stiffens an individual's financial profile like enthusiastic bouts of market-regulated sexual activity. Being in the business of selling, Triple M naturally makes the public imagine the new regime was its own idea. Meanwhile, the real minds behind this Orwellian order include the secret leader (Bill Sage) of an underground network of young partisans "counter-revolutionaries with no credit rating" in the language of the system determined to bring it all down. Into the fray drops a beautiful alien (Tatiana Abracos) from the constellation Monday on a mission to find and rescue one of her own a formless being in a temporary human body who's apparently gone native. Adopting a video format and an attention-grabbing low-tech treatment, filmmaker Hal Hartley brings his trademark wry perspective and straight-faced, writerly dialogue to this uneven but still cleverly amusing sci-fi satire, reminiscent of an Adbusters concept ad cast through a moody Zoloft hangover. Hartley appears in person on Sat/30 and Sun/1; go to www.roxie.com for details. (1:24) Roxie. (Avila)
Harry and Max Christopher Munch is a perpetually promising filmmaker whose films (The Hours and the Times, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, The Sleepy Time Gal) are striking, uneven, personal, odd, and underseen. His long-awaited breakthrough does not arrive (yet again) in the form of this very curious drama, which is executed with typical alertness and grace, yet is conceptually so off-putting that many viewers at its Sundance premiere couldn't exit fast enough. The titular characters are brothers who are both pop music stars: twentysomething Harry (Bryce Johnson), part of a boy band whose long ride atop the charts may be coming to an end, and 16-year-old Max (Cole Williams), a precocious solo act. When the former takes the latter on a long-promised camping trip, their closeness, competition, individual insecurities, and strengths all rise to the surface. As does perhaps the major tension between them: a mutual sexual attraction that androgynous Max is eager to revisit (there had been a prior vacation incident) and alcoholic, skittish Harry is halfheartedly determined to resist. Munch handles fraternal incest in terms that are tastefully restrained (in physical depiction), psychologically credible, low-key, nonjudgmental, even benevolent a neutral stance that may be just too weird for many viewers. Though the dialogue is occasionally silly, Harry and Max has the deft performances, visual tactics, and directorial skill needed to make its baroque scenario seem almost naturalistic. But those not repelled outright, or turned on by the taboo theme, will leave with feelings mixed to the point of bewilderment. (1:14) Lumiere. (Harvey)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams's cult book comes to the big screen with a cast that includes Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, and John Malkovich. (1:50) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Orinda, Presidio, Shattuck.
House of D There are worse movies to sit through than this gushy feature, written and directed by David Duchovny, about a boy and his mentally challenged 43-year-old chum. Poetic flourishes and gentle humor peek through at times, but there's not enough at stake to merit the pathos and histrionics that bog down this coming-of-age tale. Thirteen-year-old Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelchin) delivers meat with his pal Pappass (Robin Williams), looking after his widowed mother (Tea Leoni) in their Greenwich Village flat. An inmate at the Women's House of Detention (Erykah Badu) gives Tommy advice on scoring with a local girl, but his life inexplicably falls apart when he makes the move. The film tries hard to uplift with weewee jokes and cracks about Pappass (his name, his mental capabilities, his giant wang). But House of D feels like a throwback to the after-school specials of yesteryear, a mostly trite story about adversity sprinkled with corny adolescent nuances. (1:36) Embarcadero, Empire. (Kim)
It's All Gone Pete Tong This fast-moving, great-looking feature by writer-director Michael Dowse has been promoted as a This Is Spinal Tap-like parody of the international rave-superstar DJ scene an excellent idea, but one this particular movie doesn't really embrace. Instead, it too swiftly moves past comedy to sketch the long steep fall and modified second coming of Frankie Wilde (Paul Kaye), whose turntables have been the party drug of choice for hedonistic youth several seasons running. But when the cumulative damage from so many thumpingly loud work hours results in a rather sudden deafness, Frankie loses his chops, his gigs, his trophy wife, and everything else save the mansion he holes up in, doing too many drugs and going paranoically mad in Howard Hughes-like isolation. This bleak spinout is a downer to watch, yet unaffecting, because Frankie is such a Neanderthal cartoon of nouvelle riche excess from the start that (despite Kaye's earnest efforts) there's nothing at stake emotionally. Once the character gets a grip, however, It's All Gone Pete Tong turns into a surprisingly sweet romance between Frankie and his lip-reading instructor Penelope (Beatriz Batarda). Pete Tong ultimately has enough charm and audiovisual punch (the soundtrack, needless to say, is a first-rate dance mix) to be worthwhile but the teasing promise of raver satire dangled by advertising and the first reel remains frustratingly unrealized. (1:28) Act I and II, Bridge. (Harvey)
16 Years of Alcohol So bad it's good, this antihero drama by writer-director Richard Jobson might have proved a strong contender for a Razzie if it were only more widely distributed. Instead, Jobson may have to settle for a small, cult following that is sure to grow like mold in the shadows of this booze-drenched movie. Rumored to be somewhat autobiographical, Jobson's film weaves a slow-moving tale about the "alcohol is my life" Edinburgh world of Frankie Mac played convincingly by Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting). Driven to drink by disenchantment with his father at an early age, and engulfed by a culture of violence and nihilism, Frankie yearns to escape the circumstances of his downward spiral and find solace in new love. Since he unabashedly plants references to A Clockwork Orange and Rumblefish, Jobson would no doubt love to conjure ruminations of these films with his own however, 16 Years of Alcohol is more akin to Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth in both setting and temperament. Because an inebriated mind does wonders for judgment, you'd do best to visit the bar before hitting the theater for this one. (1:36) Act I and II, Opera Plaza. (Lake)
XXX: State of the Union Ice Cube takes over for the absent Vin Diesel as the exxxtreme secret agent; Willem Dafoe plays the villain, and Die Another Day's Lee Tamahori directs. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, Shattuck.
The Amityville Horror With an eye toward luring Gen Y masses who'd never be caught dead watching a movie made in 1979, the "based on a true story" saga of Long Island's most infamous bit of real estate gets an extreme makeover, complete with an oft-shirtless, ripped-abs dad (Ryan Reynolds) and a spooky little girl ghost ('cause no 21st-century horror flick is complete without one). Though Jay Anson's best-seller, upon which the Amityville legend is based, is long past its cultural-phenom days, the story is still familiar: family moves into a house that was the scene of a terrible murder (which really did happen, though the remake gets some of the facts wrong); weeks later, they flee for their lives, citing ghostly terrors (these days, widely considered to be a hoax concocted in the interest of cold, hard cash). The new Amityville leans heavily on The Shining for stylistic inspiration, but it lacks the subtle eeriness and the sense of realism that made the original film so memorable. Even the iconic "Get out!" scene is reduced to a blip amid endless other C.G.-assisted histrionics. (1:26) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*The Ballad of Jack and Rose In writer-director Rebecca Miller's The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) live a hermetically sealed-off life on the site of his onetime island commune, somewhere near the New England shore. Mom left long ago, apparently no great loss. Dad has raised his only child to be a whole-grain princess of misanthropic self-righteousness. Their mutual possessiveness is both sweet and creepy, but Jack has a weak heart getting weaker so he rashly invites mainland girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to move in with her own drastically different teenage kids, hoping to create a new "family" Rose can keep after he's croaked. Her response to this invasion is horror, sexual jealousy, and a thirst for revenge that reveals alarmingly cruel, inventive sides to her personality. Ballad was given a subdued reception at Sundance this year; as just one more offbeat little character drama, it disappointed those expecting Miller's breakout movie. But the gift Miller demonstrated in Angela and Personal Velocity, for cleanly laying out very interesting characters' complicated issues, still operates at full strength here. (1:51) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Beauty Shop What you see on the poster, in the trailer, and in the two Barbershop flicks that preceded it is what you get in Beauty Shop, an engaging comedy from Honey director Bille Woodruff that delivers nearly enough laughs to make up for its predictable plot. Fed up with her job at a posh salon, gifted Atlanta hairstylist Gina (Queen Latifah) buys her own shop, a ramshackle fixer-upper that comes complete with stylists (including Alfre Woodard as the world's biggest Maya Angelou fan), quirky neighborhood characters (the candy-peddling kid, the soul food-peddling loudmouth, the purse-peddling gay guy), and plenty of maintenance problems (enter hunky electrician Djimon Hounsou, who also finds time to help Gina get her groove back). Queen Latifah is immensely likable she's the rare star who actually seems like a real person but Beauty Shop's best humor comes courtesy of its supporting cast, who have great fun with the film's many Barbershop-style scenes of sassy, stinging opinion-slinging between stylists and clients. (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Born into Brothels Far from your typical travelogue, Born into Brothels traces the profound bond formed between a New York photographer and a group of bubbly children hailing from Calcutta's red-light district. Zana Briski travels to the city intending to document brothel workers but ends up becoming more heavily involved with the prostitutes' children, all of whom are by turns creative, outgoing, jaded, and fiercely intelligent. Rather than simply photographing the kids, Briski gives them cameras of their own and hosts an informal workshop. Besides making for some disarming, raw imagery, this premise allows Briski and co-filmmaker Ross Kauffman to own up to a defining difficulty of making a documentary recording especially on subjects like poverty and pain without actually intervening. As Briski struggles to get the children out of the brothels and into boarding schools, the film's narrative structure flirts with being overformulaic, but the radiant energy bursting forth from the young faces gives more than enough reason to keep watching. (1:37) Galaxy, Shattuck. (Goldberg)
Dear Frankie Shona Auerbach's first feature is a Scottish seriocomedy that's bittersweet but perhaps just a little too low-key for its own good. Nine-year-old Frankie (Jake McElhone), his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and grandmother Nell (Mary Riggans) are constantly uprooting themselves, finding a new Glasgow flat and neighborhood every time Lizzie's violent ex-husband zeroes in on their whereabouts. This instability has wreaked some damage on stamp-collecting, shark-obsessed Frankie, who almost never speaks (he's hearing-impaired) and dreams of his real dad, a globe-wandering sailor he's never met and who, in fact, exists only in the letters Lizzie fabricates. When push comes to shove, she's forced to have a stranger (Gerard Butler, much better than he was as the phantom of the opera) pose as the imaginary father for a day. Needless to say, the mystery man proves something of a knight in shining black-leather armor, though this being Glasgow, don't expect any miraculously upbeat resolutions. Dear Frankie is another movie (like Seducing Dr. Lewis and Good Bye Lenin!) that depends entirely on your buying into a central deception that no one in their right mind would ever devise. Still, this occasionally heavy-handed and precious tale has enough nice moments and performances to qualify as a nice movie but only that. (1:45) Oaks. (Harvey)
Don't Move Don't believe the yawps about Penélope Cruz pulling a major uglification (à la Charlize Theron in Monster) for this new Italian drama. Sure, her makeup's a little tacky, her hair disheveled, and her teeth uncapped. But the role of Italia is basically a variation on the prostitute with heart of gold, complete with off-the-rack micromini-wear and lots of bedroom eyes I'm not sure this part posed much more of a challenge than the off-screen one in which she played Tom Cruise's girlfriend. Italia is a poor woman living in arty squalor in a decrepit area where brusque urban doctor Timoteo (director Sergio Castellitto) has car trouble. She helps him out; he rapes her. Somehow this ill start does not prevent a subsequent full-bore affair from blossoming, with the sexy waif kept forever pining for the doc's attentions as are the upper-class wife (Claudia Gerini) and daughter (Angela Finocchiaro) he keeps at a cold, neglectful distance while working up the courage to leave them. His agonizing years of indecision are reviewed as Timoteo anxiously waits in his own hospital, his daughter near death on the operating table after a motorcycle accident. Adapted from Margaret Mazzantini's well-regarded novel, Don't Move is fairly restrained under melodramatic circumstances, with polished direction and strong female performances. But it's a matter of taste whether you can stomach a supposedly heart-tugging saga in which our central protagonist is a jerk: a terminally self-absorbed coward who holds three unhappy women hostage to his unreliable, peevish emotions. (2:05) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Downfall An impressive leap forward for director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment), Downfall is sort of a flip side to Saving Private Ryan. It's equally visceral on a similar epic scale, but the Spielbergian uplift is notably absent: this being the Axis's tale, acknowledgment that "war is hell" can only be followed by "and then you die, but only after realizing you were wrong all along." Whether it's possible for a German (or any other) historical reenactment to be nonjudgmental about the Reich's last days, Downfall comes close. Russian troops are closing in on Berlin as Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) denies the war is lost, when not accusing his generals who appear to suddenly realize he's utterly insane and the German populace in general for betraying his National Socialist dream. By turns pathetic and stark mad, Ganz's Hitler is a startling study of the sociopathic petty tyrant and a brutal reminder of how easily whole populations have been (and still are) duped by just such. (2:30) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*Fever Pitch You don't have to be a crazed baseball fan to enjoy Fever Pitch but it might enhance the experience. When a beautiful workaholic (Drew Barrymore) falls for a charming teacher (Jimmy Fallon), she thinks he might be "the one" at least until the seasons change and devoted "winter guy" gives way to distracted "summer guy," a single-minded Red Sox fanatic who'd rather watch back-to-back home games than sneak away to Paris for the weekend. Fever Pitch's sports angle (footage of Boston's real-life 2004 World Series victory is lovingly integrated, and Fenway Park is practically a character in the film) energizes what's pretty much your standard boy-meets-girl tale, which occasionally feels exactly like an Adam Sandler movie without Sandler. Still, the stars are well matched, and the directing Farrelly brothers, working from a script loosely based on Nick Hornby's novel, keep their trademark caca jokes to a minimum. Also, extra points for the excellent Road House reference. (1:41) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)
Guess Who (1:44) Century 20, 1000 Van Ness.
*Hotel Rwanda In 1994 Rwanda, nearly a million Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were publicly massacred, tens of thousands a day, by their own friends and neighbors. Director Terry George (Some Mother's Son) doesn't flog us with gruesome images to refresh our memories, but the effect of this personal, family-centered true story is just as, if not more, powerful. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is general manager at a plush hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. When the mass killings begin, the resourceful Hutu uses his contacts and cunning to save his own part-Tutsi family, hoping that help will arrive soon for everyone else. Eventually, he opens the hotel's doors, sheltering more than 1,200 Tutsis from machete-wielding extremists. Cheadle turns in the most nuanced performance of his career as Rusesabagina, whose fear and escalating frustration never stumble into the showboating traps that flag so many other unsung-hero routines. Likewise, George's execution is both unimposing and unforgiving, never accompanied by sappy soundtracks or editing tricks to bait his emotional hooks. (2:01) Galaxy. (Kim)
Ice Princess Robbing its own world on ice, Disney spews out yet another princess. Michelle Trachtenberg, who honed her acting skills at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer School of Hyperventilating as Buffy's little sis, here plays Casey, a bumbling physics geek turned competitive figure skater. The completely improbable transformation comes about when Casey, a weekend skater, invents "the perfect formula" for jumps and spins. Never mind physical conditioning, girls if you build the right computer simulation, you too can triple-lutz in a snap. But apparently science, math, and feminism are incompatible with being a Disney princess, because as soon as Casey starts to skate pretty, she ditches her laptop and Harvard University scholarship. The disapproving rants of Casey's dowdy feminist mom (Joan Cusack) only reinforce the message. Trachtenberg's acting just plain sucks, and so does her flappy-armed skating routine. Kim Cattrall, who plays a morally sketchy coach, looks the whole time like she swallowed something unpleasant. (1:32) Century 20. (Koh)
The Interpreter The political thriller is a delicate game; for it to work, the filmmaker must deftly maneuver between the personal (hence the thrills) and political without seeming too preachy. The Interpreter is a Democrat's movie (hence Sean Penn), but its party line doesn't keep it from succeeding where last summer's Manchurian Candidate remake fell short. Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a United Nations interpreter who becomes embroiled in an assassination plot when she overhears threats made on a genocidal African leader's life. As investigator Tobin Keller (Penn) quickly finds out, though, the facts of the case are murky and misleading. While Kidman's flattened chemistry with Penn doesn't afford the film an emotional core, The Interpreter gets enough meat from metaphorical substance (the U.N., diplomacy, etc.) and director Sydney Pollack's taut suspense sequences to mostly plug its holes. And, yes, it's hard not to find an ambiguous popcorn movie refreshing in a time when tunnel vision so dominates political discourse: that our alliances to characters and narrative aren't so clearly demarcated as in a state-of-the-union address seems a good thing indeed. (2:08) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Goldberg)
King's Ransom Comedian Anthony Anderson (Barbershop) stars as Malcolm King, a loathsome and narcissistic business tycoon so wealthy and well-groomed that even his beard has a fade. However, when his gold-digging wife, Renee (Kellita Smith, The Bernie Mac Show), threatens to take him for everything he's worth in their divorce, King plots his own kidnapping to protect his wealth. What unfolds is a series of misadventures involving a host of dimwitted friends and colleagues all chasing cash or tail. Sometimes funny though mostly only mildly entertaining King's Ransom never elevates above its many clichés but does manage to earn a few laughs. While Anderson is modestly amusing, the comedic ensemble cast all of whom are vying for screen time in interwoven subplots is what really carries the film. (1:35) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Lake)
*Kung Fu Hustle After all the Miramaxian kerfuffle surrounding Shaolin Soccer (release-date false alarms, dubbing-vs.-subtitling controversy, etc.), Stephen Chow is finally getting proper stateside respect thanks to a new distributor Sony Pictures Classics and an aggressive ad campaign talking up Kung Fu Hustle's flashy virtues. Here's hoping American audiences give Chow (sometimes called "the Jim Carrey of Asia," though I don't see Carrey writing and directing his films) a chance; subtitles are involved, but Hustle ain't really the kind of movie built on dialogue. The skimpy plot exists only to provide reason for Hustle's many adrenalized, cartoonish fights, which involve nattily dressed gangsters, secretly skilled residents of "Pig Sty Alley," two elderly assassins who slaughter with sound waves, a crabby landlady whose scream is literally a deadly weapon, a greasy convict who proudly claims the title "world's greatest killer," and Chow himself, as a wannabe bad guy who realizes his own kung fu superpowers. The result is highly ridiculous, and highly, highly enjoyable. (1:39) Century Plaza, Century 20, Empire, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Eddy)
*Look at Me Look at Me's generic-sounding title crystallizes an unvoiced and unanswered wish 20-year-old Lolita (Marilou Berry) has obsessed over her whole life: that her famous author-publisher father, Étienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), might actually notice, approve of, and love her. Fat, uh, chance. Plump and insecure (she looks a lot like a pre-aerobicized Ricki Lake), the cruelly named Lolita is a timorous misfit in dad's glittering world of power, prestige, and much younger women attracted by the same. What's worse, Cassard treats Lolita, an awkward reminder of his failed first marriage, as just that. Searching for approval and a parental substitute, Lolita fixes on her classical voice teacher, Sylvia (Look at Me's writer-director Agnès Jaoui), who doesn't need the burden but changes her attitude upon discovering the girl's lofty paternal connection. Jaoui (cowriter of Alain Resnais's 1997 Same Old Song) has crafted a drama whose brilliant wit, pathos, and insight all rise organically out of characters and relationships that couldn't be more credible or intriguing. The rest of 2005 will have to spring some mighty big surprises for Look at Me to get elbowed off year-end best lists or mine, at least. (1:50) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)
A Lot Like Love When Emily (Amanda Peet) meets Oliver (Ashton Kutcher), a lite-bite When Harry Met Sally ... wheezes into motion. A quickie in an airplane bathroom brings the strangers together; a sporadic series of encounters (wacky picture-taking in New York City! fated New Year's Eve rendezvous! magical Joshua Tree road trip!) ensue over the following seven years. Meanwhile, both halves of this made-for-each-other couple find excuses galore other partners, jobs in faraway cities not to be together. Peet, who cycles through as many hairstyles as Meg Ryan's Sally, is the best thing going here; so far, her career has mostly been limited to supporting roles (Identity, Something's Gotta Give), but she gives Emily a spark that the vanilla Kutcher can't match. Note to Taryn Manning fans: keep your peepers peeled for the starry-eyed one, who has a bit part as Oliver's trashy little sis. (1:47) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Melinda and Melinda It's been a while since the opening of a Woody Allen film was heralded as a major cinematic event. Did the rampant sexism of 1995's Mighty Aphrodite (Ivy League brainiac Mira Sorvino got an Oscar for wearing hot pants and playing dumb and annoying) deliver the first crushing blow to his credibility? Did 1998's Celebrity and its wasted actorly hordes deliver the deathblow? Did the musty period irrelevance of 2001's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion make the mourners finally stop caring? With Melinda and Melinda, Allen seems determined to show that he's not dead yet as an ambitious filmmaker (if not an intellect): Melinda capitalizes on 2003's hilarious but borderline sexist Anything Else and ups the gambit by putting on a writerly face and combining the playful postmodern comedy of Deconstructing Harry with a soupçon of Crimes and Misdemeanors' ethical conundrums. Opening with the cozy bistro scene of two playwrights (Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) arguing about whether life is comedy or tragedy, Melinda unfolds as each writer takes up the same characters and gives them a comic or tragic spin. Unfortunately, despite the strong cast (including Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor) surrounding the tragic Melinda (Radha Mitchell), comedy obviously rules the day for the filmmaker in his sunset years. Tellingly that tale includes a Allen surrogate in the grand style of Jason Biggs, Kenneth Branagh, et al.: Will Ferrell at his most likable and bizarrely combining a gentle Woody impersonation with an uncanny physical resemblance to onetime Allen regular Tony Roberts. Still, throughout the multiple narrative elements, light philosophical debate, and lingering retrograde ideas regarding people of color, Melinda truly hinges on the title character: demonstrating the range of Naomi Watts's career-making juggling act in Mulholland Drive, Mitchell promises to go far beyond the constraints of Allen's dueling story lines and shows that the filmmaker still has his touch when it comes to bringing out the best in actors. (1:39) Grand Lake, Oaks, Opera Plaza. (Chun)
*Million Dollar Baby After all the hype that surrounded last year's Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort is practically sneaking in under the radar. Funny thing is, Million Dollar Baby is among the best things he's ever done, as an actor or a director. Ex-fighter Scrap (Morgan Freeman) supplies the Shawshank Redemption-style narration in this tale of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a crabby boxing manager who reluctantly agrees to take on spunky Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, proving Boys Don't Cry was no fluke), though not before growling more than once, "I don't train girls!" Twin lonely souls Frankie (who's lost contact with his own daughter) and Maggie (who still mourns the loss of her beloved father) forge a deep bond as her winning streak extends turns out, she's a real contender. Yes, there's a training montage, but Baby is no rah-rah Rocky; a weirdly melodramatic tragedy two-thirds through adds deeply felt layers to the film's various nuggets of sports wisdom, especially Frankie's main piece of advice to Maggie: "Always protect yourself." (2:14) Galaxy. (Eddy)
*Millions Duffel bags full of cash seem to be a recurring problem in Danny Boyle's films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), the cause of broken friendships and untimely exits, some healthy, some deadly. This motif appears again in Boyle's latest, Millions, only its PG rating doesn't allow for the generally unhealthy (yet so deliciously intriguing) mayhem that often ensues in his other works. Instead the director ventures into territory any offbeat gallows humorist worth his or her reputation would write off as cinematic quicksand: a feel-good narrative with kids. And he still manages to keep the trainspotters and auteur-chasers satisfied, this time with an impressive visual palette. In a quiet northern England town, nine-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and his seven-year-old brother, Damian (Alex Etel), are adjusting relatively well despite the recent death of their mother at least until a bag stuffed with money literally lands on top of Damian and sets off a slew of complications. Oddly, the director's transition from apocalyptic horror to Christmas-special material feels almost natural; the movie's tongue-in-cheek titles and aerial shots strategically placed in dramatic scenes are recognizable fingerprints. It's as if the director were playing parts of a familiar tune just in a different (PG-rated) key. (1:37) Albany, Empire, Lumiere, Piedmont. (Kim)
Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous After saving the contestants of the Miss United States pageant in the first Miss Congeniality, agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) becomes a spoiled insta-celeb a scenario funnier and more relevant to today's reality-soaked society than the original's plot. Fans love heroine Hart and make it impossible for her to work stakeouts, so she is reassigned to become the vapid, overly coiffed "face of the FBI." Her stylist Joel (Diedrich Bader) is stereotypical comic relief as Queer Eye condensed into one flaming character. And unfortunately the filmmakers (including producer Bullock) reduce Hart's ditzy transformation to lovesickness over departed boy toy Benjamin Bratt. But the breakup also clears the path for the film to become a "female buddy movie," a change that works. Caustic, hothead agent Sam Fuller (Regina King) is a much more satisfying partner in crime-fighting than Bratt was. Bullock now eons past her "it girl" days (remember?) milks her fluffer-nutter sequel for chances to demonstrate that she is indeed, a natural physical comedian. (1:36) Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Koh)
*Oldboy Park Chan-wook's Oldboy has polarized critics, but fans of no-holds-barred filmmaking who don't mind a little gruesomeness with their action will be handsomely rewarded. The premise: a seemingly average (if drunken) man is kidnapped and stashed in a private jail for 15 years. After he's suddenly released, the only purpose in his now-ruined life is to find out who imprisoned him (and why, oh why did he or she or they?) and exact tasty revenge. Star Choi Min-sik turns in a heartbreaking yet scary performance as a ruined man so focused on his quest that he'll nonchalantly perform crude dentistry (using a hammer, no less) on an adversary who's witholding crucial information. Oldboy is the best and most brutal mystery yarn in years, with a climax so brilliantly outrageous it provides a fitting finale to a near-perfect movie. (2:00) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
*Robots Say what you will about computer animation, it seems clear that the creators are having scores more fun than their live-action counterparts. The latest is Robots, a film so generous with its details that each frame teems with ingenious bursts of sight and sound. It must be said that the story doesn't match the lofty standards set by Pixar films like Finding Nemo; indeed, a degree of been-there-done-that hangs over the proceedings from the disposable invocations of pop culture to, err, Robin Williams's voice. And yet it's not hard to forgive a familiar plotline (boy leaves parents in small town, defeats corrupt forces in the big city) given the many wonders of Robot City: an endlessly entertaining parade of Rube Goldberg devices and bizarro bots. These things, plus the excellently unexpected usage of a Tom Waits tune, make Robots a fine matinee that will appeal to kids and 'rents alike. (1:31) Century 20, Grand Lake. (Goldberg)
Sahara Assured of its place in the gossip pantheon as the film that brought Matthew McConaughey together with Penélope Cruz they're still dating, right? Sahara takes an enjoyable dive into the world of wild-eyed adventuring. Directed by Breck Eisner from the Clive Cussler novel, Sahara casts McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, an Indiana Jones-ish treasure hunter (that's literally his day job) obsessed with locating a Civil War "ghost ship" that might be lurking somewhere in West Africa. The suspension of disbelief continues when Cruz appears as Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization doctor convinced she's stumbled on a plague outbreak. No spoilers here: Eva's and Dirk's quests are mysteriously linked; the French guy (The Matrix's Lambert Wilson) is evil; Dirk's sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) tosses forth wisecracks galore; and before Sahara concludes, camels are ridden, bullets are dodged, and a global catastrophe is narrowly averted. Sahara is big, silly, and eager to please; its popcorny presence is fair warning to all that 2005's summer-movie season is poised for imminent attack. (1:58) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Sin City Rebel auteur Robert Rodriguez (Once upon a Time in Mexico) carbon-copies Sin City from codirector Frank Miller's graphic novels, bringing the author's stylized vision to life using everything-digital-but-the-actors technology. Visually, Sin City is everything last year's similarly engineered Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was not: bold and memorable, with effects that enhance rather than overpower the narrative. "Special guest director" Quentin Tarantino's influence is felt not just in Sin City's enthusiastic bloodshed but also in its Pulp Fiction-style structure, which creates twisted continuity from multiple Miller yarns. But despite an outstanding cast (Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, and Mickey Rourke are standouts), lovingly rendered violence, and marvelous attention to comic-book detail, Sin City regrettably falls short of perfection. Though most of the characters are clearly, deliberately despicable, some are nearly too loyal to Miller's two-dimensional creations in particular, Sin City's women are a depressingly unoriginal lot, posing in positions of power (hookers with guns!) but remaining absent from the movie's near constant voice-overs. (2:06) California, Century 20, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)
*Up for Grabs Professional baseball's image continues to tarnish under the growing greed of the player's union and the ongoing steroid controversy. However, as with all sports, the circus of ridiculous remains the fans themselves. Bring in the clowns: local director Mike Wranovics documents the eighth wonder of the world by way of two grown men who fight tooth, nail, and attorney over a ball potentially worth a million dollars. In a biting indictment that is simultaneously ironic, ridiculous, and depressing, Up for Grabs captures the unfolding drama between one very determined Alex Popov and one very unassuming Patrick Hayashi, who were catapulted center stage during the ensuing battle to claim ownership of Barry Bonds's 2001 record-setting home-run baseball. Needless to say, Wranovics's story shows us some of the worst in human nature. More entertaining than enlightening, and less about baseball than it is about media frenzy, greed, and obsession, Up for Grabs is a curveball of a docu-comedy, which reinforces the notion that truth really is stranger than fiction. (1:30) Presidio, Smith Rafael. (Lake)
The Upside of Anger In a beautifully appointed home in Detroit's tony outskirts, Terry Wolfmeyer (a fearless Joan Allen) wakes up to find her husband missing. And since Terry's no dummy yeah, she knows that motherfucker's off canoodling with his Swedish secretary her reaction is to get really, truly, royally pissed off. As The Upside of Anger illustrates over and over again, hell hath no fury like Terry Wolfmeyer scorned. The woman's not just upset; she's a Gray Goose Vodka-powered tornado of rage. This could be Diary of a Mad White Woman, except Terry's AWOL hubby isn't around to feel her wrath. In the damage path: daughters Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andy (Erika Christensen), and Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) and affable neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner), a baseball star turned radio personality who anoints the newly single Terry his "drinkin' buddy," though it's clear he'd like her to be more. Writer-director and costar Mike Binder (HBO's The Mind of the Married Man) is clearly aiming for an American Beauty, dark-heart-of-suburbia vibe. But Anger lurches at times, mixing melodrama with occasionally crude humor and a last-act twist that very nearly betrays the film's hooray-for-anger message. (1:58) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)
A Wake in Providence This cheesy comedy by writer-director Rosario Roveto Jr. offers about as many laughs as you might find attending your own funeral. Too flat-footed to be kitschy, Roveto's clichéd humor about Italian Americans, coupled with scenes that appear to have been blocked by a podiatrist, take you nowhere but down within the first five minutes. Anthony (Vincent Pagano), a struggling actor in Hollywood, receives notice of his grandfather's death and returns home to Rhode Island with his African American girlfriend, Alissa (Victoria Rowell), in tow. A Wake in Providence then enters a circus of Italian-ness, where every Sicilian stereotype is faithfully carried out to the hilt by one family member or another. The film is an odd pairing of comedy and drama, with unconvincing acting and a script that might have been entertaining 30 years ago. (1:34) Galaxy. (Lake)
*Walk on Water This provocative story of redemption from director Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger) charts an imperfect but earnest voyage through the contemporary Israeli psyche. Fox's duality as someone who was born in New York but raised in Israel lends itself to Walk on Water's themes, which grapple with the sympathy and disconcertion felt for Israeli's current state of affairs. Set in both Tel Aviv and Berlin, Water tracks Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), a hardened and troubled Mossad agent who has been assigned the task of tracking down Alfred Himmelman, an elderly, ailing Nazi war criminal. Posing as a travel guide, Eyal befriends Himmelman's German-born grandchildren during their visit to Israel, hoping to get information about the elusive man's whereabouts. During his mission, Eyal is forced to reconsider both violence and forgiveness by way of the Palestinian conflict and its relationship to the imprint left by the Holocaust on the Israeli collective unconscious. An ambitious drama, Water inevitably raises more questions than it can fairly answer, a forgivable stumble once you consider the careful navigation of self that went into the making of the film. (1:44) Opera Plaza. (Lake)
*The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill Having moved to San Francisco at the end of the hippie era to become a professional musician, Mark Bittner never realized that goal. Instead, he belatedly found an alternate raison d'être, feeding and studying the colorful tropical parrots originally abandoned or escaped pets who proved adaptable to this cooler climate which often roosted on his doorstep in his North Beach neighborhood. Distinguishing all 40-odd birds by markings or behavior, he gave them each a name and ingratiated himself enough to be able to hand-feeding them. When the landlords who've allowed him to live rent-free decide to remodel their property, he must move on. This is no small crisis, since Bittner has never held a "real" job, nor does he have any contingency plans. Veteran local filmmaker Judy Irving's beautifully shot documentary balances surprisingly engrossing aviary insights with rather poignant human ones, arriving at a charming portrait of the kind of mild dropout eccentricity that the world (and even San Francisco) barely tolerates anymore. (1:13) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*Bride of Frank See Critic's Choice. (1:29) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Deceitfully Funny After enduring a string of horrible dates arranged by her traditional, eager-to-marry-her-off Vietnamese mother, 29-year-old Hien (Christine Maithy Ngo) hatches a plan for freedom only a sitcom writer could love: she'll fake-marry Mark, her totally gay coworker! Shot like a soap opera, Phoenix-based filmmaker Tiffany Dang's Deceitfully Funny still manages to offer a sympathetic take on a complex cultural issue. It's clear Hien's parents, who were no doubt similarly "arranged" a generation ago, are hardly a perfect match in fact, the only functional relationship around is between Mark and his boyfriend (who makes for a dazzling bridesmaid at the faux wedding). Deceitfully Funny is pleasant enough, but it's compromised by typical low-budget concessions, including uneven acting and a less-than-dynamic technical approach. Also, beware the superfluous "blooper" reel plopped between the end of the movie and the start of the credits. (1:20) Four Star. (Eddy)
*The Forgotten Refugees This engrossing and dramatic documentary by the David Project explores the tragic 20th-century history of Jewish communities in Arab countries. Blending archival footage with first-person interviews, The Forgotten Refugees illustrates the dispossession and virtual extinction of the once-thriving Arab Jewish populations of North Africa and the Middle East. Tastefully interweaving black-and-white photographs with rare film footage from the 1920s through the '40s, Refugees revisits the rise of Arab nationalism, focusing principally on Iraq and Egypt, where as much as 40 percent of the population was Jewish until rampant violence and harsh laws decimated their presence. One interviewee recounts how his grandfather, a successful lawyer in Cairo, was responsible for drafting the Egyptian constitution. At a time when the topic of Palestinian dispossession is a major concern, Refugees is a brilliant flash of light reminding us of a similar injustice endured and overlooked. (0:35) Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. (Lake)
A Hungarian Passport Director Sandra Kogut documents her own exhaustive, two-year struggle to obtain Hungarian citizenship by unearthing her Jewish Hungarian ancestry in this familial retrospective that although fascinating at times disappointingly fails to reach a definitive conclusion. While near-comical moments involving redundant bureaucratic policy abound, A Hungarian Passport is strongest when it takes on Kogut's ancestral odyssey. The filmmaker deftly retraces her grandparents' harrowing past: they fled Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1937 before finally settling in the quiet dust town of Santos, Brazil. Their story is so interesting, in fact, that you are left wishing Kogut would have switched gears halfway through filming and focused entirely on their lives instead. In the end, Passport is a potentially powerful humanistic story of survival cluttered by misshapen sequences of the filmmaker's attempts to gain citizenship in a country that seems increasingly intent on keeping her out. (1:14) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Lake)