SIFF Week One: Picks and Pans

Aachi & Ssipak

Is Aachi & Ssipak a good movie? Not really. Is it awesome and worthwhile in an "I can't believe what I'm seeing!" kind of way? Absolutely. The movie's prime viewing period is after a bong hit and/or a couple of drinks. Just make sure you're sober enough to read the subtitles. This South Korean animated action flick follows a pair of street thugs who discover a wanna-be porn actress who defecates highly addictive pellets called Juicy Bars. According to the opening Star Wars–like exposition scroll, the person who controls Juicy Bars controls the world. When both the corrupt government and a renegade Smurf-esque street gang discover the girl's "magic anus," high-tech war ensues. No, really. That's what actually happens. Aachi & Ssipak's stunning action sequences, sure to please even the most hard-core fan, make this a must for those who love the extreme. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Neptune: midnight, Sat., May 26. Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 17.

The Aerial

The best dystopia fantasy since Dark City, this mostly silent, black-and-white vision from Argentine writer/director Esteban Sapir contains enough visual ingenuity for a dozen films. Cinematographer Cristian Cottet consistently surprises in shot after shot. The movie looks a lost treasure from the 1920s, a fascist allegory in German Expressionist style, achieved with modern technology. Characters whose voices have literally been stolen interact with text emanating from their mouths, pushing their language in and out of frame. The action takes place in the City Without a Voice in the Year X, where a nebulous but powerful coalition led by Mr. TV censors all forms of media. (Supply your own Rupert Murdoch parallel here.) Serious stuff, yet The Aerial is also whimsical without becoming self-consciously jokey about it. Considering the film’s visual flair and its timely political undertones, its lack of an American distributor is surprising. (Corporate media conspiracy, perhaps?) Go see this one while you have the chance. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Northwest Film Forum: 7 p.m. Fri., May 25; 9:30 p.m. Mon., May 28.

"Against the Grain: Art and Life"

This quartet of documentary shorts is high on adoration and low on objectivity. Thematically, they have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Conversing With Aotearoa/New Zealand features some lovely but unnecessary animation to discuss why people love rural wildlife. Everett DuPen: Sculptor pays homage to the late Seattle artist whose work and teachings continue to influence today. The Fighting Cholitas shows the lives of Bolivian female wrestlers in and out of the ring. Finally, Fridays at the Farm explores independent farming as a metaphor for raising a decent family. Each film has good intentions, but their homespun charms can't overshadow their lack of professional know-how. There is embarrassingly awkward voice-over narration throughout Farm; Cholitas never takes a stance on its topic; DuPen tries to cover too much ground; and we never actually get to see the landscapes being discussed in Conversing. By the end of this package, you'll be shrugging your shoulders. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Northwest Film Forum: 2 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Armin

A working-class guy and his son bus from their village to Zagreb to audition for a movie role in this completely, strangely beguiling Croatian film, about as quiet and uneventful as a comedy can be and still count as one. It's sort of a reverse Billy Elliott: The taciturn, baby-faced 13-year-old aspiring actor seems pretty blasé, while Dad will not stop telling everyone who'll listen about Armin's accordion-playing skill, as if that will surely give him the edge. There are passing mentions of Armin's unspecified health problem ("Did you take your medicine?") and to the war in Bosnia, but director Ognjen Svilicic chooses to look at all this sideways; the only thing that directly suggests just how much must be at stake in this audition is one sudden, startlingly emotion-laden father-son hug. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 27. Lincoln Square: 4 p.m. Fri., June 1.

Bamako

An ambitious movie of ideas, Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's latest puts the World Bank on trial. The proceedings are staged in a village courtyard, but Bamako is less an allegory than a pageant. The trial incorporates all manner of domestic activities and political intrigue; there's even an action entr'acte in the form of a faux spaghetti Western, featuring Danny Glover and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Playfully didactic, Bamako recalls the Brechtian political cinema of the early 1970s. Still, Paul Wolfowitz notwithstanding, the movie seems distractingly heavy-handed in using an elderly Jew to personify the "Trojan horse of international capitalism." (NR) J. HOBERMAN Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 27; 4 p.m. Mon., May 28.

A Battle of Wits

Yet another would-be historical epic from mainland China, A Battle of Wits feels like one of those off-brand counterfeits stamped surreptitiously from the factory at midnight: The jeans are made from the right fabric, but with three legs stitched together and different inseam lengths. You've got your marauding army, your besieged city, and your lone warrior (Andy Lau from House of Flying Daggers), fond of pronouncements like, "I believe universal love is the only path to peace." Um, OK, but is this a medieval war movie or what? How about a path to some action or romance? A Battle of Wits is a film basically in a battle with itself: The warfare can't be particularly violent; the love story can't lead to the bedroom; and Lau's hero must essentially disavow the very notion of heroism to help unite the people against a corrupt, teetering monarchy. As an opera produced 40 years ago, Chairman Mao would've loved it. The Chinese today will sensibly prefer their bootleg copies of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. (PG) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 6 p.m. Sat., May 26; 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 28.

Before We Fall In Love Again

This torturously slow Mandarin-language film, shot in Malaysia, begins with a shot of a fish tank in an office. The image is apt, for we are caught, much like Before's characters, not knowing what's happening. We learn that Chang's wife has gone missing; and soon Chang meets her lover, though it is not so easy to tell the two men apart. Lover and husband sit drinking coffee, over and over, in the same pose Chang shared with his wife at their last breakfast together. It is unclear if the two men reminisce about Chang's wife, or if they remain lost in their own separate nostalgias, for there is very little dialogue between the two. In flashback, Chang's wife is shown happier with the lover, and you wonder why she left him, why she married the husband. Domestic scenes repeat with each of the men in parallel: two lessons in toothbrushing, for instance. Any movement of plot is far, far too slow to reward one's patience. A pass. (NR) ADRIANA GRANT Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. Mon., May 28. Harvard Exit: 3:45 p.m. Sat., June 2.

"Behind the Headlines"

This potpourri of advocacy docs explores everything from denture construction to equal rights, and is chockablock full of hanky moments. Four-year-old Alex Scott is dying of cancer, but manages to raise a million dollars for cancer research by selling lemonade. Policewoman Laurel Hester (also dying of cancer) fights to get a narrow-minded New Jersey county council to allow her pension to be transferred to her domestic partner. No one's dying of cancer in Quiet Revolution, but director Virginia Williams' exposé about the GOP's stealth conservative revolution is no less disturbing. Though these four stories are often compelling, their execution—cue the slo-mo cloud shots—feels more like prime-time fodder than festival caliber. That is, except for The Truth About Tooth, which cleverly juxtaposes kids telling tooth-fairy tales with interviews with workers at a denture factory. It's just plain fun (and artfully done) by Scottish director Hazel Baillie. (NR) AIMEE CURL Northwest Film Forum: 2 p.m. Sat., May 26.

Crossing the Line

In 1962, U.S. Army Pvt. James Dresnok walked north across the Korean Demilitarized Zone, firing upon his own troops as he deserted. Now he's reportedly the last living U.S. defector in North Korea—an ideal subject for a documentary, if only filmmaker Daniel Gordon could get him to say something interesting. The hulking, metal-toothed Dresnok, however, sticks to the party line, telling Gordon how well he's treated in between shots of him fishing, smoking, drinking, and fishing some more (he's on government assistance, in case you're wondering). Perhaps scrambling to give his subject depth, Gordon spends inordinate time on Dresnok's love of poontang—the thrice-married man deserted to avoid a court martial for an AWOL booty call, then taunted his former Army buds over a loudspeaker about how he "had a lot of girls." Bizarre details about his life as Great Leader Kim Il Sung's performing monkey surface not as often as you'd wish—such as that his pro-U.S. tattoo was surgically removed, and that he allegedly beat up other American defectors at the urging of his hosts. But the portrait that lingers is of a guy who's got it pretty good in North Korea, suggesting that it's difficult to make a hard-hitting documentary in a dictatorship. (NR) JOHN METCALFE Neptune: 9:15 p.m. Mon., May 28. Lincoln Square: 4 p.m. Thurs., May 31.

Death at a Funeral

Kill me now. Frank Oz can do funny (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), but this retreat from the debacle of The Stepford Wives picks only the lowest-hanging laughs from the olde English country-home farce. One mourner has accidentally been dosed with acid; a wheelchair-bound coot heaps abuse on everyone when not afflicted with diarrhea; and the shit from same—so much for English politeness—splatters on the face of a hypochondriac. (Somewhere in the Cotswolds, I'm pretty sure, Hugh Grant is using this dusty old script to prop up a table leg.) Then there are two bereaved sons, one a successful novelist and the other not, who argue over who should pay for dad's funeral. Clothes are shed and coffins knocked over, but none of these comic engines can push a wingless fuselage aloft, which just leaves the actors flapping their arms. Even poor Peter Dinklage shows up as a gay American blackmailer—and the best you can hope for Death is that his character clocks out early to preserve a little dignity. No chance of that for Oz. (R) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 7 p.m. Tues., May 29. Lincoln Square: 7 p.m. Fri., June 1.

The Devil Came on Horseback

An exposé of Darfur genocide may not sound like a fun way to spend an evening, but potential audience reluctance is exactly the point of this even-toned, informative documentary, which assembles the photos and stories of former U.S. Marine Brian Steidle. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt) use just about every tool in the modern doc kit to keep the film visually interesting. But their greatest asset is Steidle, who describes the horrors he saw—and photographed—in the clipped tones of a top war correspondent. The movie could use more of the gripping material about how Steidle was treated by the U.S. and Sudanese governments after he started showing his pictures, but there's still plenty of outrage here to go around—and it's made especially effective by the fact that no one is shouting to be heard. Steidle will attend the fest, and also appears Tuesday, May 29, at Town Hall to discuss his book on the same subject. (NR) NOEL MURRAY SIFF Cinema: 1:30 p.m. Mon., May 28. Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. Wed., May 30.

Doubletime

Holy flying ropes! Stephanie Johnes' documentary follows Columbia, S.C.'s Double Dutch Forces and Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Bouncing Bulldogs to the world double-Dutch championship at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and wins as many laughs as boggled eyes. The young athletes are worked hard—"You don't have to bale any hay in the morning," the Bulldogs' coach tells his sleepy charges. When you're introduced to their pint-sized, 11-year-old Erica Zenn, who back-flips herself into the speeding ropes, you know that work paid off. Conflict comes in training for the competition, since neither team has the hip-hop-video dance moves required of the "fusion" style the Apollo judges favor. But the Forces have 16-year-old Antoine Cutner, a bedroom choreographer who takes control. He's an effervescent personality whom you want to follow after the film. There's not a lot of downtime in the enjoyable Doubletime, which weaves a subtle subtext of race and class through scenes of the talented youngsters competing, being interviewed, and just behaving like kids. Through a fairly young sport, they show a resilience and perseverance that's nothing short of amazing. (NR) RACHEL SHIMP SIFF Cinema: 4 p.m. Sun., May 27; 11 a.m. Mon., May 28.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

Few people can claim to have read their way through the crowded text on one of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap bottles, beloved of hippies and world travelers for its 18 uses (hair! skin! clothes!) and peppermint sting. But most of us have wondered about the writer who praised God, Hillel, and Mark Spitz in 8-point type. Sara Lamm's funny, loosely structured documentary traces Emmanuel Bronner's life story through archival footage of Bronner, who died in 1998, and contemporary interviews of those who now run his multimillion-dollar family business. A seventh-generation soap maker who emigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1920s, Bronner started calling himself a doctor sometime between the end of World War II—when most of his family died in the concentration camps—and his escape from an Illinois mental hospital in the 1950s. After making his way to California, the good doctor concocted liquid soap in order to convince the world to read his "Moral ABCs." The star of the film is not the always-ranting Dr. Bronner but his elder son, Ralph, who seems to consider the family patriarch an eccentric genius. Comfortable in his dottiness, Ralph now shares his father's "All-One!" philosophy with everyone he encounters through pamphlets, free bottles of soap, and hugs. What keeps this movie from being a kitschy profile is that Lamm refuses to sentimentalize a man who could found a business that promotes fair labor practices and ecological sustainability yet abandon his young children to orphanages in his quest to save "Spaceship Planet Earth." (NR) JONATHAN KAUFFMAN SIFF Cinema: 4 p.m. Sat., May 26; 7 p.m. Mon., May 28.

El Benny

This biopic unavoidably follows the familiar plotline of the troubled musical genius: his impoverished family roots, the women enjoyed in excess, and his struggles with addiction. What sets this Cuban-made film apart from Ray and Walk the Line, however, is that viewers whose knowledge of Cuban music doesn't stretch past The Buena Vista Social Club have likely never heard of Benny Moré (1919–63). So revered is this tenor singer in his home country that his memory is celebrated every September with a music festival. El Benny focuses heavily on Moré (Renny Arozarena) building his career during the upheaval of the Cuban Revolution, as he formed his own Banda Gigante. Flashbacks reveal time spent in Mexico, a period of exile when he found his first great success. This fictionalized account captures the essence of Moré's great talent and charisma—due in large part to an honest, soulful performance by Arozarena. The actor demonstrates his fiery temperament and alcohol-hindered drive, while the film casts light on an artist overlooked by much of the world. (NR) AJA PECKNOLD SIFF Cinema: 8:45 p.m. Sun., May 27. Neptune: 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Exiled

A knockout Hong Kong homage to Sam Peckinpah from the gifted Johnnie To (The Heroic Trio), who honors the HK action movie by refusing to coast on the familiar fluttering doves and two-handed gun ballets. Director To sets his egg-noodle Western in 1998 Macau, where assassins move on a former associate; the men's tangled codes of professionalism, friendship, and masculine honor lead them to put off the hit, to the fury of slimy Boss Fay (Simon Yam). To pulls off a half-dozen set pieces of exciting black-comic mayhem, saving the best for last: a stops-out replay of The Wild Bunch's climactic bloodbath, with world-weary tough guy Anthony Wong making a fine William Holden. See this as a warm-up for To's Triad Election, opening next month. (NR) JIM RIDLEY Pacific Place: 9:15 p.m. Sun., May 27. Egyptian: 4:45 p.m. Thurs., May 31.

Fish Dreams

Jusce, 17, seems perfectly content to become a fisherman, like his father, like just about every other male in his Brazilian village. But he's getting some pushback: His telenovela-addicted sort-of girlfriend, Ana, wants to get out of Baía Formosa and see the world, while pal Rogerio has traded in fishing for a flashy red dune buggy and a shadowy means of support having something to do with tourist gringas. Kirill Mikhanofsky's gentle film, filmed on location with untrained actors, is a bit like a National Geographic remake of Raising Victor Vargas: restless, attractive, underclass young people flirting and killing time alongside documentarylike footage of boat launches, lobster trapping, and stingray carving. You may also think of Black Orpheus, less for the setting than for the steady atmospheric hum of background sound, radios blasting, and kids playing everywhere. Fish Dreams even ends with one final Brazilian film reference: The ship hauled over an Amazon jungle mountain in Fitzcarraldo is echoed loopily as Jusce sets out to return a big-screen TV, bought to impress Ana, to a nearby city by loading it onto a rickety raft and floating off into the sunset. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Pacific Place: 7:15 p.m. Sat., May 26; 11 a.m. Mon., May 28.

Girls Rock!

"That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood—I've got news for you, SHE IS!" Bikini Kill, of course, opens this fun documentary on the fifth year of Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. Filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King have an agenda—Girls Rock! could do without the animated montages of Britney Spears usurping guitar-wielding goddesses like Kim Gordon and P.J. Harvey—but camp counselors including Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) and Beth Ditto (the Gossip) are anything but angry or strident as they mentor the girls (ages 7–18). The doc mainly follows Laura, a Korean-American death-metal fan from Oklahoma; Misty, who's just come from a group home; Amelia, a hellion on the guitar; and Palace, an uncannily self-possessed (and preternaturally stylish) vocalist. By the time each girl's band reaches the showcase (for a crowd of 700), you can see them developing their individual grooves. "I've been waiting so long to finally admit to myself that I'm amazing," says Laura, "and I really am." (NR) RACHEL SHIMP Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. Fri., May 25. SIFF Cinema: 1 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Golden Door

Emanuele Crialese's depiction of dirt-poor Sicilian immigrants bound for Ellis Island deliberately restricts itself to the perspective of these bewildered peasants. Illiterate, ignorant, and thoroughly decent, of course they believe rivers of milk flow in America, that streets are paved with gold, that carrots grow eight feet long, and coins hang from trees. They have proof! Postcards! And pictures never lie, right? Set circa 1910, Golden Door relates a familiar story, too familiar, and there's very little Crialese (Respiro) can add besides the fantastic dreams of the Mancuso family. Coins do rain down, rivers do flow with milk—at least in their imagination. In reality, it's all hardship and humiliation, though Crialese treats even that rather gently. Golden Door works best in its strange specifics—women in steerage combing one another's hair as if in a conga line; men carrying stones in their mouths to a rocky hilltop shrine; and the villagers dressed for a journey in the clothes of the deceased. "Our dead will travel with you," explains the mayor, and the movie sometimes achieves the same haunting effect. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Fri., May 25; 4 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Gypsy Caravan

Don't wait for Jasmine Dellal's doc to end up broken between pledge-drive pitches: this exhilarating portrait of the 2001 "Gypsy Caravan" tour—a stateside showcase of Romani musicians representing their splintered culture in Romania, Macedonia, Spain, and India—deserves to have its brilliant colors, lavish costumes, and vivacious musical numbers seen on the big screen. More than a vibrant experiment in ethnomusical cross-pollination, it's just great fun, tempered by loss but rippling with joy. Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) was one of the cinematographers; watch for the cameo by a Big Hollywood Star who's pretty much an honorary Rom. (NR) JIM RIDLEY SIFF Cinema: 4 p.m. Fri., May 25; 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 26.

In the Shadow of the Moon

No matter how awesome the view of Earth from space, nor how thrilling the lift-off of those thundering giant rockets from Cape Kennedy, baby boomer nostalgia for astronauts has pretty much run its course. After The Right Stuff (book and movie), Apollo 13, Tom Hanks' From the Earth to the Moon, countless books and TV specials, and the very similar Oscar-nominated doc For All Mankind (1989), Shadow has little new to tell. Surviving members of the Apollo program are all old and white-haired, of course, which gives their recollections an extra dose of mortal poignancy. Still, they've been repeating these stories for decades. Are they heroes? Unquestionably. Role models? Yeah, but they're all too modest to present themselves as such. Their most interesting comments today are environmental: Recalling his view of our planet from his Apollo 11 capsule, Michael Collins says, "That little thing is so fragile." Thus, the new twist to Shadow is that it's a post–Al Gore doc, itself in the shadow of An Inconvenient Truth. So by all means take your kids (or dad) to see it. From those original NASA cameras, likely the most expensive ever built, the most beautiful footage on-screen this year was filmed more than 30 years ago. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 1:45 p.m. Sun., May 27. SIFF Cinema: 7 p.m. Wed., May 30.

The Island

Pavel Louguine had his post-perestroika breakthrough with Taxi Blues, an early window to the new Russia's thuggish vitality, discontent, and ethnic tension. More recently, Tycoon followed a ruthless oligarch's rise during the asset-grabbing Yeltsin era. By contrast, The Island looks back to the traditional preoccupation with the Russian soul—sin and atonement, with scant regard for anything else. In 1976, a cranky old monk tends the boiler for a monastery improbably perched on a rocky archipelago. Pilgrims from the mainland row out to beg miracles from the old nutter, who sometimes clucks like a chicken when he's not praying in the wrong direction or burning the other monks' boots. Borderline crazy from guilt over an incident during World War II (the movie's prologue), the mad monk basically tells everyone to believe more fervently, to pray harder. Meanwhile, the viewer prays for a big spiritual payoff The Island never delivers. It's a minor psalm treated like a major gospel. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 25; 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Knocked Up

Fantastic festival buzz for Judd Apatow's follow-up to The 40-Year-Old Virgin may mislead viewers about Knocked Up (which opens wide next Friday, June 1). It's not the laff riot or uproarious sex farce that some might expect. It's not going to make a star of schlubby Seth Rogan, playing the likable slacker who impregnates career gal Katherine Heigl (who's already got a comfortable TV annuity). Carell and Keener they are not. Yet they very ably play out the anxieties of incipient parenthood in a manner remarkably balanced between the sexes. And that is Apatow's real genius—he is a tender, equal-opportunity offender. Which I think the term "chesticles" summarizes very nicely. Men and women are jerks and boors, up for the same abuse, redeemed (just barely) by their grudging capacity for growth. And will you be shocked that in a movie cast with his own wife and daughter, Apatow comes out squarely in favor of family in Knocked Up? And further: Will it be a Virgin-size smash? No, but something more rare: a date movie that doesn't insult guys who unwittingly drag women to see it. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Sat., May 26.

A Life Among Whales

Forget about this film's promise to help you understand the "unique relationship" between humans and whales. Just go for the pictures. Bill Haney's documentary about the life of biologist Dr. Roger Payne plays more like a vanity project, a kitchen-sink rant that covers a lot of ground without much continuity. (Is it about the scientist? Is it about the whales? What's this sudden bit at the end about the fall of the Berlin Wall?) But the intimate moments of the marine mammals in Whales are well worth seeing on the big screen. Haney takes you on a world tour to watch killer whales, humpback whales, narwhals, and others at play, at peace, on the hunt, and (gasp) being hunted and slaughtered. Warning to animal lovers (and parents): The whale-hunting scenes are bloody and brutal, but thankfully spliced between more tranquil montages. These images are more eloquent than any of Payne's preaching. (NR) AIMEE CURL SIFF Cinema: 1 p.m. Sat., May 26. Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Manufactured Landscapes

On a gallery wall, one of the slag heaps or pit mines or ship-breaking beaches captured by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is impressive enough. The acid-green lakes, fire-blackened earth, pyramids of coal, checkerboards of crushed auto bales—these become even more powerful on a movie screen, all the detritus of our material needs traced back to the source, the waste, the contamination, the toxic legacy of our desires. (One little iPod produces all that waste.) The movie screen makes that legacy even larger. But when the documentary film crew pulls back to show how Burtynsky frames these images, you realize no movie screen could ever be as big as these monuments. Or monuments-in-reverse, since they're mostly formed by extraction, gouging, and removal. Burtynsky's ecological comments tend to echo Al Gore, but there's no way you'll be able to forget these terrible vistas. Most of the film follows Burtynsky through fast-developing China, where we visit the Three Gorges dam project and what must surely be the largest factory on earth (rendered in a solemn eight-minute tracking shot). One of the more eloquent and damning images is simply that of a female factory worker's hands rendered in close-up. Her fingers become giant, disembodied tools—just another industrial process to serve our endless consumption. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. Sun., May 27. Pacific Place: 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Monster Camp

What with Robert Putnam and Bowling Alone, I am not about to snicker at any social activity that brings together like-minded individuals in an imaginative pursuit that tears them away from iPod, Xbox, TV, and PC. Even if that means dressing up in funny costumes and face paint and hurling little packets of pixie dust (actually biodegradable birdseed) at one another in the state parks of Oregon and Washington. Several Seattle residents participate in these elaborate role-playing games, and documentary director Cullen Hoback clearly has their trust. The camera never sneers at these subjects—some guys living with their mothers, others stuck in dead-end retail jobs—and their impulses aren't so unfamiliar to other breeds of weekend warriors. "I need to be somebody else," says one participant. Monster Camp lacks context and does little to explain the broader phenomenon of fantasy role-playing. Still, it looks like fun to pound on a cowering green demon with a Wiffle bat. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 4:30 p.m. Sat., May 26; 11 a.m. Mon., May 28.

Once

This astounding little film, which John Carney wrote and directed, is a deceptively simple movie—a narrative strung together by pop songs, but without the sheen (or arrogance) of most cinematic musicals. By day, a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) sings Van Morrison on a street corner for spare change. At night, he switches to his own compositions, most written for the girlfriend who's abandoned the guy (who has no name in the film or credits other than The Guy). A Czech girl (Markéta Irglová, billed only as The Girl) approaches The Guy and asks him about his songs. He brushes her off; she's pretty but too young. She's also persistent. It turns out this Girl selling flowers to strangers for loose coins is also a musician—a pianist and singer, every bit The Guy's equal. And so theirs becomes a friendship and partnership—though not quite a relationship, because of The Guy's ex and The Girl's estranged husband. He teaches her his songs and they marshal their forces to book time in a recording studio, where they cut a few tracks that will lead them...where? We have no idea at all by the end of 88 minutes that come and go far too fast. (R) ROBERT WILONSKY SIFF Cinema: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 27.

On the Road With Judas

Aren't all writers—who are constantly cherry-picking drama, characters, and scenes from the lives of others—just thieves? That's the excuse J.J. Lask gives his title character in this screen adaptation of his own 2002 novel. Think Charlie Kaufman doing a riff on Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda. On the Road stars Kevin Corrigan (as author J.J. Lask) and Aaron Ruell (best known as Napoleon Dynamite's brother Kip) as businessman/computer thief Judas, a role doubled by American Pie's Eddie Kaye Thomas in the movie's duplexed metaphysical structure. Thus, (a) actors play characters playing characters from the book; and (b) actors play actors playing characters from the book. Adaptation blends with adaptation without much cohesion save for cleverness (and a strong kinship with Kaufman's script for Adaptation). Ben Starkman's cinematography and a humorous hipster aesthetic push the film into Wes Anderson territory. (A jail-visit scene seems straight from Bottle Rocket.) But when Lask finally settles on the question of what you would do for the woman of your dreams (Amanda Loncar or Eleanor Hutchins, take your pick), On the Road finally finds some emotional coherence. Only then does Judas reconsider his thieving ways. (NR) KARLA STARR Northwest Film Forum: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 27; 4:15 p.m. Mon., May 28.

Paprika

Based on a serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, this loopy anime from director Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) isn't a movie that's meant to be understood so much as simply experienced—or maybe dreamed. Psychotherapist superheroine Paprika, aka Dr. Atsuko Chiba, learns that her laboratory's dream machine has gone missing. So she seeks the errant device, digitally jacking into her colleagues' dreams and discovering clues that include menacing geisha dolls and the recurring nightmare of a guilt-ridden police detective—who happens to hate movies. Paprika is a film in which, minute to minute, basically anything can happen; the narrative is almost completely unbound. But Kon wouldn't be his genre's supreme self-reflexivist if he didn't insist on revealing frames within the frame—which here include not just characters' dreams but movie and laptop screens, plus a Planet Hollywood–esque elevator that stops on floors devoted to Tarzan and James Bond. At once cinephobic and cinephilic, Kon's heady cure for blockbuster blues couldn't have come along at a better time. (R) ROB NELSON Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 25; 1:15 p.m. Mon., May 28.

Paris, Je T'Aime

This brimming declaration of love to the City of Lights leaves one breathless but dissatisfied. Paris' quartiers and the rainbow coalition of people who inhabit them are the connective tissue for this spotty omnibus' 18 segments; five minutes each, these trifles come and go before they've registered in the mind. Only Tom Tykwer attempts to redress this constraint by evoking a blind man's romance with an actress as a spastic glitch in time. Isabelle Coixet's and Nobuhiro Suwa's contributions are endearingly bittersweet suck-ups to love and death, but both treat the Paris setting as superfluous. Sylvain Chomet, Olivier Assayas, and Alexander Payne more sensitively consider the feelings of elation the city can rouse, while Oliver Schmitz conveys the complex politics of Paris' racial diversity with a heft and economy that evades Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. Leave it to the Coen brothers to show everyone up with their acerbic "Tuileries," in which Steve Buscemi encounters a hellish couple inside a Metro station. (R) ED GONZALEZ Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 26; 11 a.m. Mon., May 28.

The Price of Sugar

Chances are that the sugar you stirred into your coffee this morning came from the Dominican Republic; the United States imports more Dominican sugar than any other kind. This means that your sugar likely began as cane cut by a malnourished Haitian working 12 hours a day, every day, under armed guard, and with little access to clean water or medical care. Bill Haney's documentary shows the tragic result of the Haitian diaspora: Thousands of peasants are promised good wages and a better life east across the border that divides the island. Aided by the Dominican government, sugar companies strip them of their citizenship papers and force them to toil in cane fields for pennies a day, like slaves. With the bad guys established, Haney introduces his charismatic hero, Father Christopher Hartley, the scion of a wealthy family who's devoted his life to fighting for the Haitian sugar workers' rights. The revelations in Price are sobering, and Hartley is a compelling character (though depicted a bit one-dimensionally). Interviews with his slightly bewildered family provide a glimpse of the man behind the mission, but we're left without a true sense of what motivates a guy who even the sugar companies admit is the only person protecting the workers. (NR) HUAN HSU Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Sat., May 26; 4:15 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Red Road

Like all voyeurs, Jackie (Kate Dickie) lacks a life to call her own outside of her job manning a police closed-circuit television camera in Glasgow's dead-end inner city, where she lives through the small dramas that unfold on her screens. Like her protagonist, writer-director Andrea Arnold plays the source of Jackie's own grief close to her chest, focusing on her growing obsession with a shifty-looking man (Tony Curran) whom she tracks through his sordid days and nights in a graffiti-scarred housing project. No one does poetic British miserabilism with more remorseless hyperrealism than the Scots, and Arnold, who amassed a raft of reputable awards for her 2003 short film, Wasp, directs with a precociously sure touch and a raw taste for graphic sexuality rare in a woman helmer. As cat stalks mouse and vice versa, it becomes less and less clear whose heart is in greater need of softening. If the movie is marred by pat uplift at the end, it's worth bearing in mind that this is not just a feature debut but the first in a Lars von Trier–inspired Dogme trilogy in which three directors embellish on the same cast of preassigned characters. The measure of Red Road is that it leaves us hungry for what comes next. (NR) ELLA TAYLOR Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 25; 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 26.

Reprise

This peripatetic first feature has the hell-bent energy of the opening track of a debut record, and more ideas than a double album. Most of them work, although there's a point where the onslaught becomes fatiguing before precocious newcomer Joachim Trier wisely dials it down a notch. Erik and Philip, best friends and aspiring novelists, drop their manuscripts in the mailbox together. Philip gets published, gets famous, and cracks up. Erik's path to adulthood is a bit less dramatic. The film aggressively—and skillfully—shifts tones, going back and forth between Philip's nervous struggle with mental illness (and his desperate attempts to recapture what he had with his girlfriend) and Erik's rueful evolution from easygoing buddy to solo artist. Trier is a director to watch, but he's not quite the rebel he thinks he is. (NR) MICHAEL FOX SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Mon., May 28; 4 p.m. Thurs., May 31.

Rescue Dawn

How many thousands of pounds has Christian Bale lost and gained and lost again from The Machinist to Batman Begins to Werner Herzog's latest movie? Director and star could practically write a diet book—were it not for the requirement of being shot down in a plane, starved in a Laotian prison, plucking off leeches, running through the jungle, and eating raw snakes. Which is actually what happened to U.S. Naval aviator Dieter Dengler in the early days of the Vietnam War. Herzog previously told the story in his 1997 doc, Little Dieter Needs to Fly; this is his somewhat embellished version of the true-life survival tale. It's a Rambo movie without Rambo: German-born Dengler is a patriotic aviator who thinks the nascent Vietnam War will be over in a few weeks. (Sound familiar?) Yet throughout his ordeal, with Steve Zahn and a gaunt Jeremy Davies tagging along, his innocence remains essentially intact, his optimistic character unchanged. He basically gets Gitmo-ed and ends up smiling. True to Dengler, perhaps, but the movie never achieves the madman-in-nature intensity of Herzog's Kinski period. One senses Herzog is more fascinated with the opening archival footage of slo-mo orange napalm blossoms in the endless green jungle: The bombs have a fiery life to them, while the bomber remains a drone. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 9 p.m. Sat., May 26; 4:30 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Sanctuary: Lisa Gerrard

Depending on whether you're a fan of Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard's melisma-rich voice is either an instrument from the heavens or the closest sonic equivalent to a bag of drowning cats. Looking backward from her 2005 reunion tour with fellow DCD founder Brendan Perry, more than six years after the group broke up, Sanctuary could best be described as a comprehensive fan's mash note, for confirmed devotees only. Director Clive Collier adds so many watery CG overlays and close-ups of hands and candles that you feel lost in a world of 4AD album covers from the '80s, arguably the band's heyday. Everyone interviewed worships Gerrard, natch (most are employed on her reunion tour, but never mind the conflict). Perry, though now portly, bald, and nowhere near as successful as his old g.f., also joins the love fest. If Gerrard's personal philosophy leans heavily on platitudes like "The less we try to explain...the more we unlock the imagination," clips from Baraka, Gladiator, and Whale Rider do prove her vocal power. (And I want to thank her for introducing the term "soulgate" to my vocabulary.) The film is most interesting in its latter stages, as Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Russell Crowe, and several well-known film composers discuss her fortunes in Hollywood. NOTE: Gerrard will appear for a Q&A following the screening, but won't sing, at Friday's higher-priced event; separate from SIFF, she performs at the Moore Theatre on May 24. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 7 p.m. Fri., May 25; 5 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Severance

The idea of "getting axed" is exploited for maximum double-entendre value in director Christopher Smith's grisly horror-comedy about a septet of employees from a British weapons manufacturer confronted by some disgruntled former clients—or something like that—during a weekend retreat in the Hungarian countryside. Decked out with references to the post-Soviet wars of the 1990s and other Taliban-era blowback, Severance is nothing if not a canny proposition: torture porn for the Economist crowd. But unlike a spate of recent movies that have employed genre as a means of social criticism, Severance isn't a sustained work of imagination. Part of the problem is Smith and co-writer James Moran's intentional vagueness about the identities of the masked henchmen who spend most of the movie thinning out the cast. But Severance isn't much sharper when it comes to our supposed heroes, who call to mind a bad dinner-theater knockoff of The Office. Smith is at his best when staging macabre set pieces that look like Far Side cartoons come to life. Some take inspired comic flight. The rest crash to the ground and, like so much else in Severance, go splat. (R) SCOTT FOUNDAS Neptune: midnight, May 27; 11 a.m. Mon., May 28.

Small Engine Repair

This quiet drama centers around Doug (Iain Glen), a down-and-out forklift operator in a small Irish logging town who has dreams of being a country singer—if only he can overcome crippling self-doubt. Niall Heery's direction is able enough, and for a while, the entanglement between Doug and his lifelong friends is gripping—that is, until the improbable resolution, which features more meaningful glances than a Law & Order: SVU episode and a sappy climax where a violent psychopath improbably morphs into a regular guy. Still, the acting is fairly strong, and the soundtrack is a love letter to Nashville's music scene. (NR) JACK SILVERMAN Harvard Exit: 11 a.m. Sun., May 27; 9:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Summer '04

Here's a welcome case of bait and switch. For the first 20 minutes, Summer '04 is a child-gone-missing thriller. The next 20, it's a will-they-or-won't-they adultery story. Strangely enough, it all works together. Unlike overwrought genre mash-ups like In the Bedroom, these disparate plot strands are organically connected. German director Stefan Krohmer may have big points to make, but he does so in subtle ways. His characters feel like real people, and his cast is full of marvelous performers, particularly Martina Gedeck, who plays the practical matriarch, and Svea Lohde, who plays the world's most unlikely 12-year-old. Summer '04 proves that you can make a movie dealing with serious subjects that isn't a dismal bore to sit through. Many other filmmakers at this year's festival should take note. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Sun., May 27. Egyptian: 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.

Team Everest: A Himalayan Journey

Plenty of Northwest moviegoers have actually been to Everest base camp at 17,500 feet in the Himalayas, and they'll be better off perusing their old slide show again. Yes, the high-altitude vistas are impressive when finally reached in this feel-good documentary, which stretches the trek to interminable length to stop and feel good every step of the way. That's not to denigrate the accomplishment of a dozen variously disabled Texans led by their one-armed guide, Gary Guller. Fellow amputees and paraplegics do indeed overcome obstacles on their rocky march through Nepal (several being carried in baskets by that impoverished country's endless supply of shockingly small, strong, and silent porters). But Team Everest insists that every obstacle is a lesson, and that every lesson must be interminably discussed and underlined with lachrymose piano underscoring. I wonder what the foul-mouthed jocks of Murderball would make of this touchy-feely crew. And when Guller sends most of his party home victorious, then goes on to climb Everest himself (in a brief postscript), I can't help but wonder if the whole trip was a sponsorship stunt to advance his own goals. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 11 a.m. Sat., May 26; 4 p.m. Mon., May 28.

Ten Canoes

Rolf de Heer's sometimes bawdy, always beguiling work of imagination begins with an unnamed narrator (the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil) promising us: "I am going to tell you a story. It's not your story...it's my story...a story like you never seen before." And what follows hardly disappoints.A group of Aboriginal tribesmen set out on an annual goose-hunting expedition, fashioning canoes from tree trunks and sleeping in makeshift camps perched high in trees (the better to avoid being eaten by crocodiles). Along the way, an elder regaleshis restless young companion—who happens to covet one of his three wives—with a cautionary tale about another young man smitten by similar desires. Then this story within the story within the story starts to unfold before our eyes. If the moral of Ten Canoes is familiar, the getting there is anything but. To watch this movie (shot in breathtaking wide-screen by cinematographer Ian Jones) is to enter into a whole new language of symbols and meaning. Ten Canoes is a celebration of the art of storytelling, and of the power of stories to transcend all barriers of space andtime and language. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Neptune: 4:45 p.m. Fri., May 25; 6:45 p.m. Mon., May 28.

Them

If you took the blood out of the Aussie horror film Wolf Creek, which also claimed to be based on real news events, it might resemble this pared-down French thriller, which imagines how a young French couple made headlines in a Romanian paper. She's a teacher, he's a would-be writer, and they live outside Bucharest in an improbably grand country home. (But, hey, maybe teaching and writing pay much better in Europe. Or Romania is an excellent real-estate bargain.) A brief prologue establishes that danger lurks out in the night, but Them ("Ils" in Romanian) keeps that danger out of our view for virtually the whole picture—like Jaws without the shark. The lights shut off, things go bump, and soon the young couple is fleeing down hallways, fleeing through the woods, fleeing through tunnels and catacombs. Basically, it's a movie about fleeing, which one might reasonably expect to lead somewhere. Not necessarily to "This is why Norman Bates dressed up like his mummified mother and went around stabbing people," but somewhere, to something, just a tiny glimpse of the shark. Please. But Them says "non," and so should you. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: midnight, Fri., May 25. Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Sun., May 27.

This Is England

A nostalgic but bitter trip through Mrs. Thatcher's Britain, from the highs (punk rock!) to the lows (strikes, unemployment, you name it). Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is 10 and miserable after his father's death in the Falklands. He falls in with a group of multicultural, weirdly touchy-feely skinheads, and has a grand old time listening to ska and committing minor acts of vandalism. But when a former member of the gang comes back from jail full of racist rage, the charmed circle is broken, and Shaun has to figure out what it really means to be English in 1983. Directed by Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands). (NR) JULIA WALLACE Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 25. Egyptian: 9:45 p.m. Tues., May 29.

12:08 East of Bucharest

A whipped dog of a country, Romania still seems to be licking its wounds from the Ceausescu era, which ended precisely at 12:08 in the afternoon of Dec. 22, 1989. Seventeen years later, the date still preoccupies residents of a small town to the east of that nation's capital; for them, the revolution was something only witnessed on TV and celebrated in the town square. But, a TV producer asks, did the revolution really take place at all? (Yes, this is something like Bishop Berkeley and the tree.) He gathers the world's least dynamic television panel to discuss the matter—consisting of himself, an affable old pensioner, and a somewhat tipsy academic who reproaches his students for not even knowing how to cheat properly. The movie renders this in a manner somewhere east of deadpan. It's a comedy of sighing and groaning, of long-take conversations that consist mainly of long pauses. No one wants to say things were better under Ceausescu, so they avoid that statement by mostly saying nothing at all. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 5 p.m. Fri., May 25; 9:45 p.m. Sat., May 26.

Vanaja

SIFF's description of Vanaja is deceptive. Its summary claims the film is about a destitute Indian teen who dreams of becoming a dancer. It's actually about a young girl's sudden leap into adulthood after she's raped and becomes pregnant. Fans of cheery Bollywood bombast should pass on this one. It doesn't get more somber than Vanaja, a film where life never gets better, unless you have a lot of money. The movie boasts some beautiful sequences of traditional south Indian dance, placed there only to advance plot, not express character—especially Vanaja's. Worse, the film keeps pushing her into increasingly harmful situations for increasingly dubious reasons. Director Rajnesh Domalpalli loads so much misery into Vanaja's overlong, 111-minute run time that the tragedy becomes overwhelming, rather than creating empathy. But at least you'll know your watch batteries don't need replacing. (NR) FRANK PAIVA SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Sat., May 26. Harvard Exit: 1:45 p.m. Sun., May 27.

Waiter

"What kind of bullshit story is this? I'm a worthless character!" The complaint is directed at the writer of a story being erratically revised on his computer screen, and the complainer is the protagonist we're watching on the movie screen. As played by Alex van Warmerdam (also Waiter's writer and director), deadpan Edgar endures every manner of humiliation in love and restaurant work, but he has his limits. He demands better of the writer, who soon supplies him with a new girlfriend, dangerous criminals next door, roaming African warriors, and even a polite Japanese hit man to liven things up. But each new complication only tends to make life worse for Edgar; when the writer falls asleep on the keyboard, he can only say, "Eeeeeeeeee." Some might compare the absurdist humor to Charlie Kaufman or Stranger Than Fiction, but van Warmerdam's influences run past Woody Allen's The Kugelmass Episode and into Ionesco. As the author and his creation grow increasingly at odds, the humor darkens to a Dutch hue of existentialism. Edgar knows that his future can be deleted with a keystroke, yet he retains his dignified, weary professionalism to the end. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 11 a.m. Sat., May 26; 9:45 Sun., June 3.

A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory

Was Andy Warhol a bottom? Sea brings us closer to the horrible truth. Pity we know less about Warhol's onetime boyfriend and undiscovered avant-gardist Danny Williams, who may or may not have drowned in the summer of '66. Forty years later, Williams' niece Esther Robinson tries to shed light on the man's abbreviated life, providing what may be the toothiest exposé yet into the soul-sucking modus operandi of Warhol's Factory. The filmmaker never knew her uncle, but she comes to understand him as something of a kindred spirit of Edie Sedgwick—which is to say, a better person than Warhol. (NR) ED GONZALEZ Northwest Film Forum: 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 26; 9:15 p.m. Sun., May 27.

The Yacoubian Building

This three-hour Egyptian epic—the most expensive ever made—has been crafted (in the old school, by youngish pro Marwan Hamed) as a massive Arabic soap opera, a Cairo-based Gone With the Wind swoony with mourning for a privileged colonialist past and with fascination for the bloody ideological conflicts of the present. Notably in a nation with notoriously strict censorship laws, Hamed's film revolves around the need for, and degeneration of, sex and money, and it's groundbreakingly frank about homosexuality and female exploitation. Hammy, lavish, and often thunderfooted, the movie is an immersion in rare ethnographic pulp. (NR) MICHAEL ATKINSON Pacific Place: 1 p.m. Sat., May 26. Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. Mon., May 28.

 
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