The Girl From Monday

Also: Hard Goodbyes: My Father, The Interpreter, Kung Fu Hustle, A Lot Like Love, and Madison.

The Girl From Monday

Runs Fri., April 22–Wed., May 4, at Northwest Film Forum

If you thought writer-director Hal Hartley was a bit wan, twee, and peculiar before, you ain't seen nothing yet. His signature micro-hits (Amateur, Henry Fool) declared independence from the normal movie universe; his new faux sci-fi flick, here making its world premiere, declares independence from normal Hal Hartley films. Shot on video by cinematographer Sarah Cawley-Cabiya, it exults in the shimmery imperfection of the medium.

When Brazilian model Tatiana Abracos, playing a bodiless alien from the constellation Monday, assumes human form and drops naked into Earth's ocean one day, her pretty underwater writhings kick up a beautiful profusion of elongated bubbles that dance like translucent choreographed sea worms. Even in air, people make cool-looking smears whenever they move, especially if they're storm troopers with shiny metal helmets that catch reflections and emit light from a fascist cyclopean visor over their eyes.

The storm troopers are out to enforce the eccentric sexual laws of dystopian futuristic Manhattan. Only hard-core insurgents have sex for fun. Good citizens have sex to increase their value on the sex stock exchange, monitored by the government. Citizens' prime duty is to consume products, especially one another. So when a good girl like Cecile (Sabrina Lloyd) gets propositioned by ad-agency colleague Jack (Bill Sage), she's alarmed—because he chickens out, potentially lowering her sex credit rating.

Jack is an alien, too, given human form to run the sex insurgency. The Brazilian model alien lives at his house, à la Splash, learning how to occupy a human body. He teaches her to drink and pee. Then he's off to the office to create ad campaigns manipulating schoolkids into consuming soda, and make secret cell phone calls to his fun-sex commando, Lt. William (Leo Fitzpatrick of Kids). Cecile converts to the fun-sex cause.

Despite more voice-overs than Sin City, the logic of all this intrigue eludes us. His sci-fi sex film is low on science, fiction, and sex. At least Sage has the excuse of being an alien, explaining this typical Hartley hero's baffled blankness. Hartley fans will get their minimum daily requirement of irony from the satire—they'll call this a hip comedy. This onetime Hartley fan is reconsidering his allegiance, as he retreats into ever chillier interstellar wastes of vacuous abstraction. I like the fresh direct-video look, though. And maybe when Hartley appears in person at 8 p.m. Friday, April 29, he can explain why he felt his previous film style wasn't weird and remote enough. (NR) TIM APPELO

Hard Goodbyes: My Father

Runs Fri., April 22–Thurs., April 28, at Grand Illusion

On the eve of the moonwalk in 1969, Elias (Giorgos Karayannis), a 10-year-old Athenian schoolboy, half lives in space already, with the help of his loving father, Christos (Stelios Mainas), who reads him Jules Verne's Mysterious Island by the glow of a flashlight, making it seem even more secret and forbidden. They have a solemn pact: His father will absolutely be home to watch the moonwalk on television with Elias.

Christos is an earnestly hardworking failure, generally on the road selling electronics from the back of the family sedan. His ties to Elias may be all he has left; his rail-thin wife (Joanna Tsigouli, called only Mom) is eaten up with fury over the splintering of their family life, while his other son, 16-year-old Ari, has already taken on some of his mother's desperate disdain for this mostly disappeared breadwinner.

Christos ritually announces his late-night arrival home with a big, blue-wrapped chocolate bar, tossed on the bed for Elias to find in the morning. His scant time with the boy is spent in the kind of deviltry that makes mothers faint and sons' eyes widen: driving the old car in endless circles along the white seacoast, dad steering with his feet, while he and Elias each perch outside their windows.

Each of these details reinforces the staggering emptiness Elias feels when a road accident obliterates his father from their lives, leaving only Christos' devoted brother and a blind, venomous grandmother, whose special targets are any who try to help her.

The strengths of debuting writer- director Penny Panayotopoulou's film (at SIFF last year) is its clear-eyed, uncloying insight into Elias' mind as he steadfastly refuses to accept his father's death. This is the hallowed territory of My Life as a Dog, and while Hard Goodbyes is a good notch below that, there's something wonderfully knowing about the path Elias takes to slowly slip-slide back into the "real" world: dispensing dozens of his sacred, saved chocolate bars at school as presents from his dad; and faking long, magnificent letters to his awe-inspiring gorgon grandmother from his father. And, best yet, imagining moving into the restored family car, with a flowerpot out one window and the inside of the roof papered with photographs.

Hard Goodbyes is at its most inspired when the camera plays over amazing young Karayannis' face, shining with an agony of pure belief—and in its vivid, dreamlike palette, starry-sky blues, pulsing oranges and yellows. At the end, even Elias' orange tent, glowing against the dark at his uncle's seaside bungalow, is a match for the Apollo 11 liftoff flames, and the moonwalk itself comes with a final, resolving benediction. (NR) SHEILA BENSON

The Interpreter

Opens Fri., April 22, at Metro and others

Here's an idea for Sydney Pollack's ongoing, unwitting retirement project: If Gus Van Sant could remake Psycho, why not go back and plunder Three Days of the Condor, shot for shot, and do something interesting with the casting—like make the Robert Redford character a resourceful young woman? (My vote: Julia Stiles, who seemed way too smart for The Bourne Identity.) Similarly, the only way to save this United Nations–set snoozer would've been to reverse the roles played by Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. A tough, emotionally withdrawn, gun-wielding woman protecting a fragile man with secrets in his past? That might've been worth seeing.

Instead, Pollack's would-be thriller adds even more irrelevancy to an institution little-understood and mostly reviled by Americans. (And not just on the right; the Kojo Annan–gate scandal involving Saddam's oil proceeds should be just as infuriating to us liberals, too.) We already know how the U.N. has disgraced itself with anti-Israel declarations and ineffectual windbaggery during crises in Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire, Iraq, and Darfur, so it's somewhat mystifying that Pollack and his writers could present the ossified international congress as a potential force for good. The big plot point is a speech to be delivered by a black African despot, guilty of genocide against different tribes within his (fictitious) country, and whether or not he might be assassinated—unless U.N. interpreter Kidman and Secret Service agent Penn can prevent the hit.

Uh, guys, maybe you should've prevented this movie instead? We've seen Penn in screwed-down bereavement mode before, and we've watched Kidman run from room to room to escape spooky music and scary camera angles. Putting them both in a big white building, surrounded by serious types in suits who do nothing but glower and whisper into cell phones, isn't a recipe for excitement. The TV ads might make you think this is an action movie; far from it—The Interpreter is a flick about waiting for e-mail, about demanding important dossiers right now!, about phones that ring right in the pocket of the underscore (as if the creep on the other end had written the awful music instead of James Newton Howard).

So we've got two Academy Award winners—or three, including Pollack— who never even kiss, the usually estimable Catherine Keener wasted in support (and looking like the "before" version of Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality), plus lots of helicopters swirling around the East River as if to say, "Look, this stuff is really exciting because the camera is covering it from 360 degrees!" It isn't, and The Interpreter ends up reflecting its subject in the worst possible way: All that talent and money, plus all the good will in the world, and they still can't accomplish a goddamn thing. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Kung Fu Hustle

Opens Fri., April 22, at Metro and others

If the Three Stooges had had access to supercomputers, something like this would've resulted. (With enough RAM, you see, anyone can speak Cantonese.) The latest chopsocky comedy from Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer) is cheerfully incoherent in its search for gags. For that reason, it works pretty well in its own peculiar terms. Sure, it'd probably be helpful to have a Tarantino-level knowledge of the martial-arts conventions being lampooned here (Kill Bill Vol. 3: The Dissertation), but you'll probably laugh more for not understanding what the hell's going on.

In '30s China, Chow plays Sing, an aspiring tough guy who wants to join the Axe Gang, which has been known to burst into Busby Berkeley–style dance routines when not chopping people to bits. Both Sing and the Axe Gang stumble into a tenement known as Pig Sty Alley, which is ruled by a tyrannical landlady and her meek husband. Various peasants cower under their wrath, but those bent backs conceal superpowers. (To preserve the surprises, I won't say who can do what when the wire-work and CGI-enhanced ass-kicking begins; the humble soon become very mighty indeed.)

As writer, director, and star, Chow has been compared to Buster Keaton, but Keaton faced considerably more risk doing his own stunts than Chow does at the computer keyboard. He takes the CGI way, way over the top, ultimately making Kung Fu Hustle into a cartoon, and that's a compliment. It's refreshing to find a filmmaker who so thoroughly embraces the silly. True, he flogs silliness all the way to stupidity, but when a future hero is told (in flashback), "The duty of upholding world peace and punishing evil will be yours," sometimes the best answer is, "Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk." (R) BRIAN MILLER

A Lot Like Love

Opens Fri., April 22, at Metro and others

This lightweight Gen-Y rehash of When Harry Met Sally features so much of stars Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher that if you don't care for either of them, it's a little like water torture. Even if you find them both utterly charming, Love commits a cardinal offense once described by The New Yorker's Louis Menand in an essay on romantic comedy: The lovers never really demonstrate why we should care as deeply about their romance as they do.

Still, the movie puts a smart start onto seven years of on-again/off-again romance. Having bid adieu to her beau at LAX, Peet spots new guy Kutcher in the airport lounge. Soon after boarding their flight to New York, she proceeds to board clueless Kutcher in the airplane bathroom. In the years following their initial goodbye, set against the familiar backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, they reunite periodically—just as "friends," of course—for a playful poke. At each rendezvous, their easy chemistry becomes harder for us to buy. It takes more, after all, than one aimless road trip and mutual griping over exes to cement a bond, even if the bonders in question are endowed with excellent bone structure.

Equally forced is the interaction between Kutcher and his deaf brother (Tyrone Giordano), which is supposed to make the lunk seem lovable. (Haven't the Farrelly brothers already beat this device to death?) Love also wastes Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) in the malnourished role of Kutcher's partner in, get this, an online diaper sales business. (Here the Farrelly brothers might've been useful to generate some poopy laughs.)

With his trademark goofiness dialed down to tolerable levels (he's less a human golden retriever than usual), Kutcher makes a decent, if decidedly bland, romantic lead. Peet (Melinda and Melinda) is her usual brainy, neurotic self—until the script smothers her with a sillier, needier temperament. Even Menand would concede that they photograph well together, but that seems to be their sole qualification for on-screen coupledom.

Love's early scenes in New York sweetly capture the self-consciousness of two people trying, as Kutcher says, to get their "ducks in a line" and figure out who they are. Well, you can't herd ducks. Love soon gets lost in genre strictures and arbitrary obstacles before its inevitable outcome. Peet keeps rejecting other suitors because they have the audacity not to be Kutcher. Strange, since it's a trait many women would consider a virtue. (PG-13) NEAL SCHINDLER

Madison

Opens Fri., April 22, at Meridian and others

SW's distinguished former hydroplane critic Kenan Block once noted the crucial two questions faced by the Seattle hydro-race fan: Who's winning? And who cares? The point is to sit in the sun and get hammered.

Unless you are one die-hard fan—a foaming hydrophile—you'll need many beers to enjoy this partly-set-in-Seattle hydro epic, which has apparently been gathering dust since 2001. Director William Bindley (auteur of the basketball movie Loose Balls) is a ham-handed hack who can't fit bits of film together into a story to save his life, not even when he has a marvelously talented and appealing cast. He sure does here. Climbing down off the cross, Mount Vernon's Jim Caviezel utterly convinces as Jim McCormick, a thwarted coulda-been-a-contender who's given up racing to be a good dad and air-conditioner repairman in his dying hometown, Madison, Ind. He's crazy about his wife, Bonnie (Mary McCormack), who wants to move to a bigger-bucks job in the big city, and crazier still about his adorable son (Jake Lloyd).

Miss Madison, the town's community-owned hydroplane, is in bad shape, worse than the bypassed port town itself. Can she ever get back in the water again, race in Chicago and Seattle, attract the 1971 Gold Cup to Madison, and beat the snooty rich corporate types who make Miss Budweiser the unbeatable Godzilla of America's favorite white-trash sport? Can she ever! All it takes is pluck, luck, the passion of the air-conditioner repairman, the yearning of one son whose faith is sorely tested, the most inertly clichéd script you ever saw, and some brilliant actors (Brent Briscoe as Jim's second-banana crewman and Bruce Dern as his grizzled old genius of a boat mechanic) humiliatingly slumming instead of starring in smart indie movies as they should.

The small-town atmosphere is nice, the acting nuanced and naturalistic, and the climactic race worth cheering for. Maybe your tolerance for schmaltz exceeds my own, and you'll experience Rocky- or Breaking Away–style satisfactions instead of the Days of Thunder slumber that seized me. Just keep a coolerful of Miss Budweiser's sponsor on hand in the likelier event that Madison makes you yearn for bubbly oblivion. (PG) TIM APPELO

 
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