San Francisco Documentary Film Festival
The fourth annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs May 12-22. Venues are the Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St, S.F.; the Little Roxie, 3125 16th St, S.F.; and the Women's Building, 3543 18th St, S.F. Tickets ($7-9) available at Naked Eye Video, 607 Haight, S.F., and www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Magnificent Obsessions." All times p.m.
*The Holy Girl See "Divine Filmmaking." (1:46) Act I and II, Clay.
Kicking and Screaming Robert Duvall and Will Ferrell star as a father-son duo whose competitive relationship hits the boiling point when they become rival youth-soccer coaches. (1:27) Century Plaza, Century 20, Shattuck.
Ladies in Lavender While he's appeared in more than his fair share of Merchant Ivory-type costume pieces, British actor Charles Dance has usually brought them a certain degree of Continental "edge," even villainy. So it's dismaying that this, his first directorial effort, is such a conventional, non-boat-rocking exercise in Masterpiece Theatre-style tea-cozy drama. Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play elderly spinster sisters living on the Cornwall coast just before World War II. One day something washes into their English Channel cove: nearly dead Andrea (Daniel Brühl), a Polish-speaking sailor. This injection of cute youthful blood into their staid, sexless existence is an excitement that Dench's Ursula, especially, rather OD's on. She turns possessive, trying unsuccessfully to hide Andrea from the attentions of visiting painter Olga (Natascha McElhone), whose curiosity is piqued by overhearing the comely lad's skill as a violinist. The resulting tempest in a teapot complete with scones and jam (or is that crones in a jam?) is, of course, acted with old-pro assurance. But Dance overindulges every moment as if it were a precious keepsake (enough with the slo-mo already), and the story's predictability is never challenged. It's inoffensive matinee material for your inner Grandma or your real one, if she's up for a movie date. (1:43) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Harvey)
*Lipstick and Dynamite See Movie Clock. (1:23) Lumiere, Shattuck.
Mindhunters Eight FBI profilers (Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, and LL Cool J among them) realize a serial killer is in their midst. (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20.
Monster-in-Law Jennifer Lopez (as a dog walker) and Jane Fonda (as an ex-national news anchor) square off in this comedy from Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic. (1:35) California, Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Orinda, Presidio.
*Save the Green Planet See "Another Mean World." (1:56) Act I and II, Lumiere.
Unleashed A gangster-trained killing machine (Jet Li) sees the error of his killing-machine ways when he befriends a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman). (1:43) Century Plaza, Century 20, Presidio.
*Watermarks This graceful documentary by Israeli filmmaker Yaron Zilberman offers the best of what historical retrospectives can provide: an intriguing if obscure story from the past that personalizes an important event. Film footage and photographs taken in the 1920s and '30s at the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna are interwoven with current imagery of the surviving members, as Zilberman recounts the tale of the club's champion female swimmers who defied Nazi edicts banning them from competition. After traveling to their homes around the globe, Zilberman brings the women to Vienna for a touching reunion with each other and the pool where they made history 65 years earlier. Meticulously edited and thoughtfully narrated, Watermarks is a surprisingly adept and entertaining film that joins the ranks of countless documentaries that have, in recent years, addressed the myriad tales surrounding the Jewish plight under Nazi rule. When asked how they found the courage to continue competing in the face of mounting hostilities, one of Hakoah's swimmers, now 85 and frail, responded, "We had the choice to sink or swim we swam." (1:24) Balboa, Smith Rafael. (Matthew Lake)
*The Best of Youth Italian director Marco Tullio Giordana's epic drama finally reaches American theaters nearly two years after its acclaimed European release. With this generational tale of two brothers, Giordana has crafted what is arguably the best foreign film in recent memory. Beginning in 1966 and reaching the present day, Best of Youth follows the storybook tale of the Caratis, Nicola and Matteo, whose lives and loves mirror the major social and political crises that have marred the picturesque Italian landscape over the past half century. Best of Youth is as much a historical retrospective of Italy's self-destructive past and a critique of the forces that have guided it, as it is a family drama. Not unlike Once upon a Time in America, Best of Youth is an ambitious film whose scope and length offer a complexity and depth rarely achieved in cinema. Even with countless characters and a near six-hour length, the strong performances and powerful story will leave you pining for more. (Part one: 3:02; Part two: 2:56) Balboa. (Lake)
*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, Oaks. (Goldberg)
*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 Being promoted as the most critically acclaimed film of the year (so far), Paul Haggis's first directorial feature provides a fine opportunity to note which critics you need never take seriously again. Namely, any caught clapping their heads off at this crap-a-palooza, a steaming pile of horseshit spray-painted Oscar gold though, in fact, Crash takes itself so seriously, it might settle for nothing less than the Nobel Peace Prize. Hewing way too close to the Magnolia model, it throws together umpteen marquee names (including Sandra Bullock, Brendan Frasier, Matt Dillon, and Don Cheadle) as two-dimensional characters who intersect during a fateful 36 hours in that Hollywood veteran's perennial notion of Everytown, L.A. One dimension is that they're all racist and aren't we all, the movie sorrowfully chides and the other is that they're still "human," meaning they love their kids or have sick parents or such. With every scene a blunt confrontation, the movie is a Rube Goldberg contraption in which one overamped event sets off another, each obvious irony and tragic misunderstanding highlighted in boldface throughout. (1:40) Empire, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (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) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (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) Lumiere, 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) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Fighting Tommy Riley A recent entry at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, this tiny self-starter (approximate total budget: $200,000) follows the uneasy friendship that develops between young boxer Tommy (J.P. Davis, who also wrote the script) and his crusty, Kipling-quoting coach, Marty (Eddie Jones). These underdogs have troubled pasts: Tommy's had a crisis of confidence ever since he bungled a shot at the Olympics, while Marty's "tainted rep" puts him at odds with the world of macho sports. The genre requires director Eddie O'Flaherty to include a few clichés, including the expected training montage; though occasionally hammy ("The first rule of boxing is the first rule of life: keep punching!"), Davis's script is also blessed with fully drawn, realistically flawed characters. Shot on high-definition video that projects nearly sepia at times, Fighting Tommy Riley is closer in tone to Million Dollar Baby than to Rocky, though Riley's utter lack of Hollywood gloss adds genuine despair to its darker moments. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
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, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Presidio, Shattuck. (Annalee Newitz)
House of Wax Some refreshingly gruesome moments aside, House of Wax breaks absolutely no new ground, putting yet another group of good-looking city kids at the mercy of yet another family of backwater lunatics. The first half of the film may drive some viewers to the point of screeching frustration, as the youngsters in peril (24's Elisha Cuthbert and One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray among them) make one idiotic move after another clearly, none among them have ever seen a single horror flick. Otherwise, they wouldn't dare to veer off the main highway, provoke the wild-eyed locals, prowl around in lingerie, or dawdle in the creepy titular museum, which is, incidentally, filled with suspiciously lifelike creations. Some semblance of a sense of humor, à la Cabin Fever or Dawn of the Dead, might've distinguished House of Wax from other similarly themed scarefests (Wrong Turn, anyone?). Instead, this not-really-a-remake is made memorable only by costar Paris Hilton's vicious death scene which is, it must be said, pretty satisfying. (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20, Four Star, Grand Lake, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)
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, Empire, Grand Lake, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Goldberg)
Kingdom of Heaven Set in Christian-controlled Jerusalem between the Second and Third Crusades, Ridley Scott's latest echoes several recent sword-swingin' war flicks, including the director's own Gladiator ("A hero will rise" again). Further double vision is propagated by the casting of period-movie poster boy Orlando Bloom, whose blacksmith-turned-knight character is hardly commanding enough to anchor such a huge story (see Russell Crowe in Gladiator for the reverse effect). Kingdom hews to political correctness by ensuring the film's baddest bad guys are Christians, avoiding any contemporary-context tension when Jerusalem's citizens eventually find themselves battling Muslim invaders. Director Scott is fully adept at delivering a proper historic epic, but we've all seen that siege-of-the-city scene a few too many times lately (the Lord of the Rings films, Troy, Alexander, etc.); also, there's definitely no "Are you not entertained?" sarcasm coming out of William Monahan's script. Gladiator may have had its corny moments, but Kingdom of Heaven is completely humorless, which suits the subject matter if not the attention span of the average popcorn-chomper. (2:18) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*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, Four Star, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, 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) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (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, 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)
*Palindromes Can a satirist be accused of being too mean? Filmmaker Todd Solondz kills off Welcome to the Dollhouse's beloved ur-geek Dawn Weiner, a.k.a. Dog-Face, in the first minutes of Palindromes and things spiral down (or up, depending on how you feel about babies having babies) from there. Dawn's 13-year-old cousin Aviva (played by women and girls of various races and ages, in addition to a boy) embarks on a quixotic, innocent quest to get pregnant as quickly and as often as possible, and Solondz squeezes the maximum cringe factor out of every awkward adventure, as well as great performances out of players like Ellen Barkin, testing the limits of white liberal tolerance with the wickedly spot-on yet empathetic eye of the perpetual underdog, while stretching the conventions embedded in the "family drama" narrative (like being able to identify with the protagonist). How do you feel about teen pregnancy versus parentally strong-armed abortion, bumbling abortionists versus right-to-life snipers, Christian communes for the disabled versus bad Jesus-in-a-boy-band-style pop? If Palindromes makes it out of the "not rated" indie ghetto, this sour but sweet takeoff on after-school TV specials could trigger hours of parent-child conversations. (1:40) Castro, Shattuck. (Chun)
*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 20, Galaxy. (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, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
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) Opera Plaza. (Stephens)
*Turtles Can Fly The children so familiar to Iranian film have never been quite as animated, engaging, and endangered as they are in this incredible, magic-realist war story set on the eve of America's latest Iraqi invasion by Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Gohbadi (A Time for Drunken Horses and Marooned in Iraq). Led by a Kurdish orphan nicknamed "Satellite" (he buys and sells sat dishes to the locals to feed his troop of tent-living, parentless cohorts), the children dig for land mines, sometimes losing limbs, and trade them in at the arms market for necessities. A boy orphan with no arms, a sad sister, a baby, and extrasensory powers upsets the balance as a community waits for the American onslaught, or "liberation." The film's witty scene-setting (an army of children on a mountain holding up old antennas with their bare hands) is reminiscent of a Makhmalbaf film, but Ghobadi parts ways with his mentors Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf with a more adrenaline-fueled storytelling style. (1:35) Smith Rafael. (Gerhard)
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)
*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 ludicrous 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, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)