San Francisco International Film Festival
The 48th annual San Francisco International Film Festival runs through Thurs/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.; 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 (2 Stockton, S.F.), by calling (925) 866-9559, or by visiting www.sffs.org. For commentary, see last week's Bay Guardian. All times p.m. unless otherwise noted.
Aquarius Shepherd's Journey into the New Millennium 7. Days and Hours 9:30.
PFA The Forest for the Trees 7. Dear Enemy 9.
Castro The Dying Gaul 7.
PFA Private 7. The World 9.
*Cecil Taylor: All the Notes "We create sound," avant-garde jazz legend Cecil Taylor emphatically explains. "First it comes, then it floats away and it's gone. But where does it all go to?" With a disjointed, yet pointed, manner of speaking that's more than a little reminiscent of William S. Burroughs, Taylor waxes pseudo-philosophically on all manner of subjects. Director Christopher Felver uses this quality to great effect in his portrait of the pianist, who proves to be a wellspring of artistic intellectualism that extends well beyond his accomplishments as a musician. Cutting between candid interviews of Taylor in his Brooklyn flat and episodes of his past performances, Felver provides an inspiring document of an artist whose legacy has been shamefully downplayed in other recent music documentaries (most notably Ken Burns's 2001 series Jazz). (1:10) Roxie. (Lake)
Crash See Critic's Choice. (1:40) Empire, Century 20, Shattuck.
Daybreak Like the also-new Crash, writer-director Bjorn Runge's drama cuts between a wide array of characters as all of them move from conflict to crisis to catharsis, at last realizing I've been such a fool, Life is too precious to waste, Let's all hug now, etc. This difference is that Daybreak is Scandinavian (Swedish, to be exact), and hence (a) doesn't congratulate itself quite so much for taking on serious issues, (b) sports leftover Dogma fillips, and (c) has a certain dour humor that lends the histrionics a self-lacerating edge. Compulsively overworking bricklayer Anders (Magnus Krepper), facing his own problems at home, steps into a real domestic abyss when he consents to virtually wall up a bizarre older couple in their own house. Having stewed in a simmering vat of resentment since her husband left three years earlier, vengeful Anita (Ana Petren) pays him (Peter Andersson) and his much younger new squeeze, Petra (Anna Krepper), a score-settling visit. Surgeon Rickard (Jakob Eklund) and wife Agnes (Pernilla August) host a small dinner party whose guests are his colleague Mats (Leif Andree) and the latter's spouse, Sofie (Marie Richardson) who also happens to be Rickhard's newly pregnant mistress. These grotesque little scenarios each have the voyeuristic appeal of a train wreck. But don't expect another searing, dissecting Celebration, except in the imitative (and spastic-camera) sense. Daybreak is crafty but overcontrived, a misanthropic gloat whose ironies are as obvious as its ultimate redemption is hollow. (1:48) Act I and II, Lumiere. (Harvey)
Drive Japanese director Sabu's crime caper, about a businessman forced to be the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers, screens as part of the Four Star's Spring Asian Film Series. (1:38) Four Star.
Fighting Tommy Riley See Movie Clock. (1:49) Presidio.
House of Wax Paris Hilton melts! (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Orinda, Presidio, Shattuck.
Kingdom of Heaven See "Hero Worship." (2:18) Century Plaza, Century 20.
*Palindromes See "Oh, Baby." (1:40) Act I and II, Castro.
3-Iron South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk tends to divide viewers into two distinct groups: avid enthusiasts who think his films most of which center on brooding hunks with violent natures, sexually unfulfilled housewives and/or nubile if assertive schoolgirls (either of which will naturally aspire to lives of gold-hearted prostitution), and occasional cutaways to white-plaster lawn statues meant to suggest the lineaments of finer culture are something altogether new, and skeptics who would rather spend two hours sticking hot needles in their eyes. If you're as yet undecided, this insipid teenage fantasy in which an expensively hairdo'd young rebel-in-his-own-mind breaks into vacationing families' homes, takes a shower and a couple of pictures, and hops back onto his BMW motorbike, leaving only a mindfuck behind may do the trick. When bike boy finds an abused wife and a set of golf clubs in one of the houses, an uneasy mixture of tenderness and vigilantism starts to unfold, but Kim's last-reel relapse into ludicrous fantasy and an entirely noxious ratification of the status quo confirm the director's sexual politics as reactionary at best. (1:35) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Stephens)
*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) Oaks, 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 20. (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) California, Galaxy. (Goldberg)
*Bride and Prejudice The latest from Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) puts a Bollywood (and Hollywood) spin on Pride and Prejudice. The director's attempts to update Jane Austen's classic chase-to-the-altar story as well as shift it into a new culture, imagining an American Mr. Darcy (The Ring's Martin Henderson) and an Indian Elizabeth Bennet (Aishwarya Rai) occasionally come off as forced. Also, it's hard suspending disbelief long enough to accept that anyone who looks like Rai would have trouble finding a husband, or that she'd spy a serious contender in one of the blandest takes on Darcy ever filmed. Still, the musical numbers are great fun, the scenery (including Rai believe the hype, people) is gorgeous, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more cheerful or energetic movie on any continent. (1:51) Oaks. (Eddy)
*The Century of the Self This four-hour BBC documentary ponders the impact Freud's theories had on 20th-century culture, particularly the way "psychological" ideas muddied the distinctions between consumerism, politics, democracy, and advertising. It's a fascinating viewpoint. Part one, "Happiness Machines," centers on how Freud's nephew Edward Bernaise, seen in 1991 interview footage, played a leading role in turning the shrink's notions about the supremacy of unconscious desires into a huge tool for "manipulating the masses." (He's credited with virtually inventing the term "public relations.") Part two extends these themes into the postwar years, with particular focus on how Freud's daughter Anna upheld strict interpretation of his ideas which largely view man as struggling against an "enemy within" of "savage barbarism." That was a nice fit for the times, but less so as "anti-Freud" Jung and 1960s and '70s counterculture became major social influences. Yet in the later milieus of Reagan, Thatcher, and beyond, Freud's filtered-down insights would prove most helpful to conservative think tank types plotting political strategy. The Century of the Self's narrow adherence to a single-minded thesis begins to wear the closer it gets to current events. Yet there's nary a dull moment between wonderful archival clips and an extraordinary interview roster that encompasses strategists Dick Morris and Philip Gould, actress Celeste Holm (who shared Marilyn Monroe's psychiatrist), est founder Werner Erhardt, Mario Cuomo, surviving relatives of Freud and Bernaise, and many others. (4:00) Roxie. (Harvey)
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) Four Star, 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)
*Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room When the Enron scandal hit, it grabbed enough headlines to outrage even non-Wall Street types. But if the reasons behind the company's spectacular collapse still seem kinda enigmatic err, something about the stock market, and, like, shady accounting practices? Alex Gibney's excellent doc Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room offers clear, damning explanations. With a clever pop soundtrack keeping the pace, Gibney charts Enron's rise by delving into the psyches of charismatic company heads Ken Lay and especially Jeff Skilling; he also expounds on Enron's shady business tactics, which included banking on projected (and ultimately "imaginary") profits, firing analysts who disagreed with Enron brass, stashing debts in offshore companies, masterminding the California energy crisis (and therefore contributing to the election of the Governator), etc. Among the film's many engaging interviewees is Fortune magazine reporter and author Bethany McLean, who dared during the boom years to ask how exactly Enron made its billions. The answer a mixture of hope, misguided faith, and sinister financial magic turns out to be just as compelling as how exactly Enron lost its billions. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
*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 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*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. (1:24) Roxie. (Avila)
Guess Who (1:44) Century 20.
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 Lackluster and aimless, Garth Jennings's adaptation of Douglas Adams's beloved series about wacky aliens in search of a meaningful existence has a few funny bits but mostly disappoints. Sam Rockwell turns two-headed, interstellar playboy politician Zaphod Beeblebrox into an inexplicable cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and a muppet; Mos Def is uncharacteristically blah as galactic travel writer Ford Prefect; and Martin Freeman's lovelorn human Arthur Dent is droopy and irritating by turns. Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a geeky spaceship navigator in the novels, becomes in the movie an extraneous girlie girl obsessed with kitchen appliances. Still, there are a few standout moments. Who doesn't want to see Earth destroyed by bureaucratic Vogons building an interstellar freeway? And the film's climactic moments at a factory for building customized planets boasts some cool CGI and manages to evoke the irreverent dark humor that made Adams' books famous. (1:50) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Presidio, Shattuck. (Annalee Newitz)
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) Opera Plaza. (Kim)
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, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Goldberg)
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) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
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) 1000 Van Ness. (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 20, 1000 Van Ness, 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 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) Four Star, Grand Lake, Opera Plaza. (Chun)
*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, Bridge, Empire, Piedmont. (Kim)
*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 withholding 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. (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. (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) 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) Galaxy, Oaks. (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) Galaxy. (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)
XXX: State of the Union Minimal brain cells are necessary to enjoy XXX: State of the Union, which improves on the original XXX by replacing secret agent Vin Diesel ("killed in Bora Bora," apparently) with Ice Cube (in full snarl mode). With a new director (Die Another Day's Lee Tamahori) also in place, only Samuel L. Jackson, as XXX's scar-faced government contact, returns from the first film. State of the Union's plot made highly implausible for maximum enjoyment involves a well-armed conspiracy against the president masterminded by the sinister Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe). Ice Cube is thus required to outsmart, outwit, and outplay his adversaries in a series of ludicrious confrontations, including a tank chase fully contained within the decks of an aircraft carrier and a clever thwarting of heat-seeking technology using a pile of microwave dinners. No doubt aware he's making the cinematic equivalent of a giant bag of Skittles, Ice Cube also gets to quote Tupac and, visually at least, The Fast and the Furious, calling on his gearhead pals (Pimp My Ride's Xzibit among them) to provide fast cars and bad-boy backup. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)
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) Lumiere. (Eddy)
*'San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Fest' Sex workers assert their artistic sides as part of this fourth annual fest, which includes not only two days of films at the Roxie but also performances (everything from burlesque to spoken word), an art exhibit, and a daylong educational "Whore College." The film program remains the festival's centerpiece, however, with a diverse array of documentaries, comedies, dramas, and at least one entry from the Annie Sprinkle canon. Fans of porn stars and Showdogs Moms and Dads won't want to miss Margie Schnibbe's near-mesmerizing Porn Star Pets, which visits the animal-stuffed homes of Ron Jeremy and other adult-entertainment luminaries. Virtually every type of critter is represented (cats, rats, sugar gliders, turtles, birds, guinea pigs, chinchillas, snakes even a pair of giant millipedes), all lavished with the kind of affection that's reserved for surrogate children. And why not? All cuteness aside, a puppy will never pass judgment, even if his mistress happens to be the star of The World's Biggest Footjob Gangbang. Visit www.sexworkerfest.com for a complete schedule of events. Roxie. (Eddy)