This Week's Attractions

Coffee and Cigarettes

Opens Fri., May 21, at Guild 45

Some things are best reserved for DVD outtakes and extras. The 11 vignettes Jim Jarmusch assembles into this black-and-white omnibus are a perfect case in point. They're frivolous, offhand, unnecessary, and collectively not worth your attention. He filmed most of them during past feature projects, generally using the actors on hand, beginning in 1987 with a Saturday Night Live sketch. They're shown in chronological order over 96 minutes, yet they grow tedious with the very first SNL episode, in which Steven Wright and a pre-annoying Roberto Benigni exchange some banter in an empty cafe. Jarmusch punctuates their dialogue with occasional overhead shots of cups, saucers, ashtrays, and nervously drumming fingers on the tabletop (this will be a recurring stylistic tag for the next 10 shorts). You laugh a little bit, then you grow impatient, then it's over.

Don't be fooled by the roster of stars. Bill Murray's segment with two members of the Wu-Tang Clan is a joke. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits fare better, but soon run out of lines. Jack White and Meg White show plenty of charisma, but you'd be better off seeing their White Stripes doc, Nobody Knows How to Talk to Children, at SIFF. Steve Buscemi fans should rent Trees Lounge instead.

Only two episodes work—perhaps because they feel scripted rather than improvised, perhaps because their actors can actually act. Aussie Cate Blanchett plays two roles in split-screen, portraying a haughty starlet and her hard-luck cousin. Brits Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) similarly explore Hollywood codes and protocols in a coffee-shop encounter that's also a subtle power game. My advice to Jarmusch: Why not abandon the indie pose and just move to Hollywood? It seems to be the only place that irks him out of his tired laconic hipster act. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Shrek 2

Opens Wed., May 19, at Metro and others

Shrek's creators painted themselves into a corner in the first one, by having Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) hook up with Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Deprived of their sparring courtship, this sequel saga lacks focus. The opening scenes are alarmingly aimless: The couple goes on a honeymoon, pauses to parody various movies—the From Here to Eternity beach scene, Frodo's ring toss, Charlie's Angels—and then gets summoned to meet Fiona's parents, the King and Queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews).

The King proves a royal pain, hiring a Hispanic kitty, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), to assassinate Shrek. Inex­plicably, Puss decides to join Team Shrek. It makes no sense, but it works—Puss is reliably funny, and keeps the sidekick shtick of Donkey (Eddie Murphy) from getting old.

It turns out the King isn't acting on his own. He's under the thumb of the Fairy Godmother (Ab Fab's Jennifer Saunders), who's bent on getting Fiona to marry her son, the vain, charm-free Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). Fairy Godmother whips up Beauty and the Beast–ish flying furniture and maleficent mischief at the castle. The Shrekkies hunt down the conspirators to a cool bad-guy bar where Peter Pan's Hook picks out Tom Waits tunes on the piano. Later, Fiona and Shrek get transformed into good-looking humans, causing Godmotherly retaliation and confusions of identity that finally lend the chaotic drama a semblance of direction.

In technical respects, the animation here is better than in the 2001 original. The characters move in a more lifelike fashion. It used to be jarring whenever you saw a human face in a CG toon, because our eyes are so good at reading human faces that it's hard to fool us. Shrek 2 fools us more skillfully than ever before, though Shrek still looks better toonishly green than humanly pink. The action sequences soar, showing how all movies—animated and live-action—are converging on a common ground of pure, unfettered motion in space.

The writing still lags way behind the animation, however, as Shrek 2 descends into a reductio ad-cartoonum of pop-culture references. Cribs include the Tom Cruise scene in Mission Impossible that imitates Rififi, the city-smashing giant from Ghostbusters, and the castle on a hill from Beetlejuice, which itself referred to Psycho and Frankenstein and Citizen Kane! Toddlers raised on such recycling will start getting the pop-quote in-jokes before they get to second grade. What they won't know is the concept of the structured story. (PG) TIM APPELO

This So-Called Disaster

Opens Fri., May 21, at Big Picture

The backstage drama is one of the oldest clichés in show business, but veteran trickster Michael Almereyda—he of the video-on-video Ethan Hawke Hamlet—successfully dusts it off here. Almereyda's behind-the-scenes documentary of Sam Shepard directing his play The Late Henry Moss is both resonant and skillfully devious. The hottest ticket in San Francisco when it premiered for a limited run at the Magic Theater in late 2000, Moss boasted a high-voltage Holly­wood cast—Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin. Featuring a pair of conflicted brothers (Nolte and Penn) and an overbearing, hard-drinking father in a stylized frontier landscape, the play recalls Curse of the Starving Class and True West. It's quint­essential Shepard—or, as Penn puts it, "the plight of being a man where being a man doesn't have any definition."

Moss got mixed reviews, but that hardly matters here, where the actors are, in essence, performing their performances. As a study of acting, the movie compares interestingly to Almereyda's Hamlet, another all-star indie with an emphasis on role-playing. Penn and Nolte ensure a surplus of beefy bluster—especially since they seem to be portraying their on- camera selves whenever they are offstage. As the stars wax philosophical, the supporting actors are shown mainly honing their craft: Marin is warm and unpretentious; Harrelson, also affable, comes across as genuinely demented.

Shepard is seen critiquing his dialogue ("let's get rid of this Joseph Conrad shit"), conducting scenes for rhythm, and searching for the appropriate language with which to talk to his actors. For his part, Penn makes the surprising comment that writers suffer even more for their art than actors. This acted and scripted so-called documentary converts literature into confession and intimate stage performances into big-screen turns. (NR) J. HOBERMAN

Valentín

Opens Fri., May 21, at Metro

Not fondly remembered from its opening- night slot at SIFF '03, this Argentine import is the kind of twinkly-piano paean to the lost innocence of youth that will appeal to viewers who found Cinema Paradiso too violent and intense. Our 9-year-old hero lives with his grandmother (Carmen Maura) in late-1960s Buenos Aires. Mom's gone; Daddy (director Alejandro Agresti) drops by occasionally; meanwhile, four-eyed Valentín plays at being an astronaut—it's TV-cute, but we have TV for that. The boy develops a crush on his father's girlfriend, bonds with a bohemian pianist neighbor, and feels the pang of death. All this he narrates from his limited, childish perspective (unlike on The Wonder Years, where this kind of thing worked because the protagonist is grown and knowing in his comments). What's Valentín's big coming-of-age discovery? He's a Jew! (Does that mean he can't be an astronaut? That's another movie, I guess.) Apart from the vintage fashions and music, plus the grandly mildewing apartment of Valentín's grandmother and scenically cobblestoned Argentine streetscapes, Valentín merely leaves you hoping for childhood innocence to be shattered as quickly as possible. (PG-13) B.R.M.

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