SIFF Week Two: Picks and Pans

Angel-A

What if you took It's a Wonderful Life and replaced George Bailey with a scruffy Parisian con man and swapped Henry Travers' doddering guardian angel for the half-naked chick with the $10 million pasties from Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale? You'd wind up in the humid imagination of La Femme Nikita writer-director Luc Besson. In this amiably inconsequential fairy tale, one-armed Moroccan-born comic Jamel Debbouze (Days of Glory) draws on his sawed-off, scrappy charm as a quick-talking Brooklyn-based loser who's about to jump into the Seine to avoid his gambling debts when suddenly a literal suicide blonde (Rie Rasmussen) materializes on the same bridge. When the leggy sprite and her companion aren't wandering a desolate, neon-flecked City of Lights—shot in silvery black-and-white—the portentously named Angela (geddit?) throws roundhouse kicks in a bid to restore her man's latent decency. Is she the director's muse? Is ex-pat Debbouze's love-hate relationship with Paris symbolic of Besson's own tenuous position in Gaulywood, where he functions as a kind of Gallic Jerry Bruckheimer? There's little beyond the surface-deep pleasures of this talky, balky, strangely subdued distaff riff on Wings of Desire, although the knockabout pairing of the raffish Debbouze and the gawky Rasmussen provides ungainly sweetness. But the loony grand passion and profligate imagination of Besson's sci-fi whatsit The Fifth Element are sorely missed. (R) JIM RIDLEY Neptune: 9:45 p.m. Thurs., May 31; 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 4.

Big Rig

Doug Pray once made the terrific 1996 grunge documentary Hype!, well grounded in a Seattle scene he knew, populated by figures he admired but didn't worship. It also helped that those flannel-clad rockers mostly had a sense of humor about their sudden blow-up to fame. Now he introduces us to the sincere, patriotic, and irony-free world of long-haul truckers, a less-publicized group, and one that he simply lionizes in a series of random interviews. Big Rig just couples together colorful drivers, endless montages of roadside scenery (set to drivin' music by Buck 65), and liberty-lovin' rhetoric of the most predictable kind. "The day of the independent is gone," one driver laments. Fine, but Pray never goes further to explain how big firms (Wal-Mart included) control the trade, why unions don't form, or the effect of NAFTA, with Mexican drivers crossing the border. And trucks haul all our food—cantaloupes, pigs, tomatoes! What's all that cargo worth to our national economy and health? Given the opportunity to make Fast Food Nation on 18 wheels, Pray merely delivers a chrome-polished version of BJ and the Bear. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 1; 3:15 p.m. Sat., June 2.

Black Irish

Not another Ed Burns movie! You're right to worry, but The Brothers McMullen stands like Citizen Kane next to Brad Gann's coming-of-age twaddle. Set in south Boston sometime in the '80s, the presumably autobiographical Black Irish pummels you with stereotypes—the knocked-up sister; the black-sheep brother with a heart of gold; the sensitive teen hero who observes it all; their mismatched parents (Brendan Gleeson and Melissa Leo, deserving better) who stick together because, well, that's just what families do. Whenever hard-drinking, unemployed Dad punches another hole in the wall, the McKays hang happy family photos over the damage. Even if that's a truthful detail in Gann's memoir-ish account, there are times when you need to embellish because the truth is so stale. Pass me another pint of Guinness and some salt to choke down the clichés. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Lincoln Square: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 1; 6:45 p.m. Sun., June 3.

Black Sheep

Or: Mutton Chomps. Genetically tweaked and dangerously pissed-off sheep turn rabid in this cheeky, campy Kiwi gorefest, loosely modeled by writer-director Jonathan King on countryman Peter Jackson's early dead/alive puppet gross-outs. Subtext—indeed, substance—is nonexistent, but King's sense of fun is as infectious as the disease of his zombie sheep, sharp-fanged stuffed animals tossed from offscreen toward the jugulars of various deserving victims. Bitten humans turn sheepish, too, which allows the FX department to uncork some old-school, American Werewolf–style flesh-ripping transformations. Karo syrup abounds, as does the irresistible spirit of juvenilia; the last few gags in particular are a gas. (NR) ROB NELSON Lincoln Square: 9:45 p.m. Thurs., May 31. Neptune: midnight, Sat., June 2

Born and Bred

Pablo Trapero has a gift for charging every composition with a palpable sense of life's pulsating vitality, but he saddles his latest film with a cipher at the center. And it's rarely a good thing when the scenery is more interesting than the characters. After a car accident demolishes his family, a successful interior designer drops out, leaves no forwarding address, and re-emerges in the frozen tundra of Patagonia. The remote outpost, with its primitive airport and crude, hard-drinking denizens, has an exotic vibe but soon comes to feel as familiar as a Pony Express outpost in any modern Western. The alienated hero, a dislocated urbanite who's picked his own purgatory, likewise feels fresh at first before tripping over one too many clichés. The movie aspires to be a subtly nuanced character study, but its inability to communicate his pain or make us empathize with his situation renders it a good-looking but existential exercise. (NR) MICHAEL FOX Pacific Place: 4:30 p.m. Thurs., May 31.

The Champagne Spy

This meandering Israeli documentary features covert reconnaissance missions, shady political maneuverings, and secret identities. Sounds great, but a total bore to sit through. Spy follows Wolfgang Lutz, a Jewish spy who during the '60s posed as an ex-Nazi horse breeder in Egypt, gathering information on that country's nuclear programs. Director Nadav Schirma n picks the least interesting perspective for this intriguing story: Lutz's adult son, Oded, who's still trying to come to terms with his often absent father. What follows is way too much daddy-didn't-care and far too little espionage stuff. While Spy is well made, steady camera shots and well-assembled archival footage only go so far. It also assumes viewers are well-versed in Middle Eastern history of the 1960s. For viewers more knowledgeable about spy movies of the 1960s, Spy is doubly disappointing. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. Thurs., May 31. SIFF Cinema: 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 1.

The Cloud

If this German drama had contained itself to a single day—when a Chernobyl-like nuclear meltdown sends a town into panic—it might've sustained the intensity that makes one think of 28 Days/Weeks Later. Meaning houses emptied in frenzied haste, the savage breakdown of civility and social order, crushing crowds of fear-crazed citizenry desperate for that last seat on the outbound train, cars careening across fields to avoid the congested roadways, and a dark, toxic cloud looming on the horizon, pregnant with radioactive rain. And a few kids left behind, like in a Spielberg movie, forced to fend for themselves. The Cloud doesn't end with the storm, however, but continues through The Day After, and then several days and weeks and months after, as our teen heroine copes with various losses. Hairless and forlorn, she manages to evoke Holocaust victims, East German refugees, and AIDS patients—but when it rains, it pours, right? (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 2 p.m. Fri., June 1; 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 2.

Congorama

The unassuming Olivier Gourmet (known for his work with the Dardennes) is a balding Everyman, and his ramshackle, distinctly ordinary appearance distracts us for a long while from the complex construction of director Philippe Falardeau's jam-packed script. Gourmet plays a frustrated Belgian inventor and son of a famous writer who discovers in his 40s that he's adopted. A bulldog of sorts, Michel kisses his Congolese wife goodbye and flies to French Canada, where the plot snowballs with delicious misdirection and irony. There's as much pleasure to be had from this film as any in the festival, whether one views it as a goofy hoot with a feel-good frosting or something weightier. (I opt for the latter.) At the very least, this poignant comedy harbors serious hopes for the possibility of sons acquitting themselves with their fathers, and vice versa. The numerous references to the Congo (which inevitably evoke Belgium's horrific colonial treatment) do not completely coalesce, but the briskly matter-of-fact depiction of Michel's interracial marriage is so refreshing that one wishes it got more screen time. How about a sequel, Philippe? (NR) MICHAEL FOX Neptune: 6:45 p.m. Mon., June 4; 4:15 p.m. Wed., June 6.

Crazy Love

The less you know about Burt and Linda Pugach, the couple whose tumultuous 50-year relationship is documented here, the better. Directors Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens spend a great deal of time on the past, so much so that they ignore their film's potential. By choosing to focus on the Pugachs' lurid tabloid history, which includes an acid maiming, a sex scandal, and several high-profile trials, the filmmakers miss the true story: These people are still together after all the horrible things they've done to each other. Crazy Love only begins to ask why in its latter stages, a fundamental mistake of this otherwise fine film. It never creates an outside perspective on Burt and Linda's relationship, making it impossible for viewers to connect emotionally with their plight. As such, the Pugachs appear an unfortunate freak show, rather than a deeply troubling pair of human beings. (PG-13) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. Wed., May 30; 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 1.

DarkBlue-AlmostBlack

This intense, beautifully shot, and well-acted Spanish-language film explores sex, illness, love, and family. Jorge is a hardworking, good-hearted (and gorgeous) janitor who dreams of a life in which he would be the man in the DarkBlue-AlmostBlack suit. But Jorge is caught in menial jobs, while caring for his ailing father. The woman in Jorge's life is beautiful, but, as his dad put it back when the couple was 11, out of his league. Jorge's friend Israel likes to peep into the neighbors' windows, and discovers his father in a situation that makes him question his own sexuality. The plot tangles when Antonio, Jorge's brother, contacts Jorge from prison with an intimate request. Daniel Sánchez Arévalo's film is tense with emotional upheaval, with a plot like a meandering roller coaster. (NR) ADRIANA GRANT Lincoln Square: 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 2. Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 5.

Dasepo Naughty Girls

Lee Je-yong's live-action take on a popular South Korean online comic is far more bizarrely entertaining than the American Pie–type flicks it sometimes emulates. This tale of teens behaving badly at No Use High is as much dark comedy as farce. Here's a curriculum where deviant sexual behavior is embraced (though never enacted), and the principal is quite literally demonic. Candy colors pop from every frame, and karaoke sing-alongs occasionally freeze the narrative, which centers on Poor Girl and her infatuation with cruel, materialistic Anthony. He in turn worships the hot transgender Double-Eye, whose brother Cyclops is the class virgin (guess why?). Subtle jabs at America and musings on classism are mixed with joyful scenes, like when Poor Girl is captured and forced to dance for an underground club of masked men "to arouse erotic energy." Ridiculous as it is, Dasepo Naughty Girls is still fascinating. Just watch a heavy-breathing kid input "Please!!" into an online sex-chat application, which politely changes his words to "If you don't mind." (NR) RACHEL SHIMP Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 4. Egyptian: 4:15 p.m. Wed., June 6.

Eagle vs. Shark

From across the international date line (New Zealand) comes a wonderfully weird, wry romance where the hearts, as well as the drains, seem to run backward. Unhappy food-court employee Lily falls for retail dweeb Jarrod in the worst possible way; her insane, pursed-mouth ardor seems to blind her to his every fault. And there are many. A braggart and bully, he speaks with the deadpan Zen utterances of tough-guy behavior that could only have been learned from '80s American TV shows. ("Dammit, I'm too complex," he growls while rebuffing her.) Only gradually does writer-director Taika Waititi take us outside the ugly malls and tract homes to reveal bits of New Zealand's coastal beauty. His two off-puttingly charming leads (Jemaine Clement, half of the comedy-music duo Flight of the Conchords, and Loren Horsley) undergo something of the same slow inner discovery as they travel to Jarrod's hometown on a mission of revenge. Interspersed are rustic stop-motion animation sequences that would be cloying if they didn't suggest how things hidden and magical can lurk in the least likely places. (R) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 7 p.m. Thurs., May 31; 4 p.m. Fri., June 1.

The Elephant and the Sea

Here's a brief list of activities that are more interesting than watching The Elephant and the Sea: cleaning out the back of the refrigerator; reading a 1,000-page book about 19th-century Russian history; waiting in line at the DMV. This Malaysian drama is so mind-numbingly boring that it should be sold in bulk to insomniacs. Forget SIFF's incredibly deceiving description, which positions the film as a mystery. There's little intrigue to be found in watching two men, one young, one old, as they wordlessly sulk their way through a tiny fishing town. Their only connective thread is their loneliness, and a passing interest in prostitution. Along the way, an elephant shows up for about a minute to give the audience something exciting to look at. Unfortunately, it's difficult to see the elephant because the movie is shot in underlit DV, which gives a dim haze to its already languid proceedings. Zzzzz. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 4:45 p.m. Thurs., May 31; 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 2.

The Ferryman

Every horror flick should have at least these three qualities: one squeamishly graphic sequence, one gorgeously doomed girl, and sound effects that startle even when you most expect it. How does The Ferryman stack up? Check, check, and check. The campy, gory New Zealand thriller puts three couples on a pleasure cruise to Fiji; en route they rescue what appears to be a stranded, injured sailor (John Rhys-Davies). Of course the refugee turns out to be an evil spirit who possesses bodies by stabbing them with a magical knife. The film features some spectacular death sequences, highlighted a by a brutal, slow-motion shot of wine bottle breaking on face and a jarring snap back to real time. And the soundtrack employs a Reservoir Dogs–like dissonance between lighthearted pop and graphic violence. Perhaps the best part is watching each character become possessed and snap over to the dark side, though it's not quite enough to raise The Ferryman to genre-classic status. (NR) KEEGAN HAMILTON Egyptian: midnight, Fri., June 1. Lincoln Square: 9:45 p.m. Mon., June 4.

The Fever of '57

God, it makes one nostalgic for the MSM—and a much, much simpler world—to hear Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, and their fellow broadcasters breaking the big story of a half-century ago. Their reports and much wonderful old newsreel footage are included in this documentary account of the year following the first satellite launched into space. So we have Ike and LBJ and Khrushchev pondering the Cold War implications, armies parading through Red Square, duck-and-cover drills at school, families cowering in their backyard bomb shelters, and rocket clubs springing up across America. (In an interview, one scientist says some of his Nobel laureate peers lost fingers during those unsupervised adventures.) Still, nostalgia only gets you so far. David Hoffman's well-assembled clips and commentators—including NPR's Daniel Schorr—don't have much new to say, and the post-Sputnik, Cold War stuff is well-traveled ground. Probably most informative for viewers whose memories begin with the space shuttles of the '80s, Fever does amplify an important theme from the doc Why We Fight: It often takes ex-generals like Ike (and Khrushchev) to resist the rush to war. Fifty years later, we still haven't learned. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 7 p.m. Fri., June 1. Neptune: 11 a.m. Sun., June 3.

Gagarin's Grandson

Discovering that your recently deceased mother had a secret son, your half-brother, 20 years after you—that would be a shock. And that the 14-year-old you find in the orphanage had a black father—well, also a surprise, but in America, anything's possible and all people are equal. Except this is Russia, and struggling, doughy artist Fyodor's new sibling, Gennady, draws stares wherever he goes. In defiance, the kid claims lineage to Yuri Gagarin, the famous cosmonaut with whom this ad-hoc family shares a last name. Because maybe the first man in space visited Cameroon during his victory tour? Fyodor isn't in the mood to argue; he has to sell his paintings to rich Russian yuppies (one of whom has a cute blond daughter Gennady's age). It's all very cute and sometimes touching in an Odd Couple sort of way as they bond; learning about the madness of Van Gogh, Gennady tells Fyodor, "Don't cut your ear off, OK?" Improbably, and even as Gennady's behavior becomes more delinquent, he even wins over the leader of a local skinhead gang. And it's this good-hearted goon who delivers the film's moral to Fyodor: "If you abandon someone for a minute, you abandon them forever." (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 3. Lincoln Square: 4 p.m. Wed., June 6.

Grave Decisions

Here's an unlikely scenario: a charming German comedy about a young boy coming to terms with his mother's death. When 11-year-old Sebastian sets out to find dad a new wife, one might expect many Hallmark moments. Thankfully, none appear. The movie is neither overwrought nor saccharine. Director Marcus H. Rosenmüller maintains an optimistic tone that mirrors Sebastian's throughout. While the story may be familiar (Sleepless in Munich, anyone?), the telling certainly is not. There are enough pleasant surprises to please even the most jaded filmgoer. In particular, a scene involving Sebastian and his friend's near-death great-grandmother is worth the price of admission alone. Little Markus Krojer is so magnetic as Sebastian that it's difficult not to care about his plight. SIFF-goers will likely remember Krojer's name when filling out their ballots at the end of the fest. I know I will. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 4 p.m. Sun., June 3; 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 4.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Led by a magic flute that not all can hear, avant-pop marches on: Tsai Ming-liang's latest is an enigmatic, largely wordless ritual performed over the often comatose body of the filmmaker's alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng. Lee plays two manifestations of the same person, identified in the credits as Paralyzed Guy and Homeless Guy. The Paralyzed Guy is introduced lying in a hospital bed as the Homeless Guy wanders through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, getting himself beat up when he inexplicably tries to hustle a gang of hustlers and then getting himself rescued from the pavement by a Bangladeshi guest worker. Tsai's eighth feature is his first to have been shot in his native Malaysia, and stylized as it is, it draws substantial human interest from Kuala Lumpur's urban locations—most spectacularly, a vast, flooded construction site. As this is a Tsai picture, sex inches ever closer, as does urban disaster, in the form of a mysterious haze somehow connected (or suspected of being connected) to the city's multiethnic foreign workers. Albeit closer to ballet than drama, this urban nocturne is one of Tsai's most naturalistic films—at least in terms of its rich, humid, almost viscous ambience. The narrative, however, is pure fable. (NR) J. HOBERMAN Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Wed., May 30. Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. Sat., June. 2.

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

Zacharias Kunuk's follow-up to his sensational ethno-epic The Fast Runner, featuring many of the same actors and co-directed with cameraman Norman Cohn, is a sort of sequel in which the Inuit enter Western history. A shaman and his family fall in with a pair of Danish arctic explorers. Despite its title, Journals is no less steeped in the Inuit worldview and dense with the minutiae of igloo life than The Fast Runner; it is, however, a far more troubled and demanding movie. The action is largely philosophical until, in the final 40 minutes, the Inuit shaman is compelled to abandon his spirits, having been starved into Christian conversion. (NR) J. HOBERMAN Neptune: 7 p.m. Wed., May 30. Pacific Place: 11 a.m. Sat., June 2.

La Vie en Rose

Emulating some of the worst attributes of Monster, Ray, and Capote, La Vie en Rose renders the life of the great Edith Piaf as a horrible-wonderful freak show. Trampolining back and forth in time, shunning nuance and confusing incoherence for artfulness, Olivier Dahan stresses only the biggest, most traumatic biographical points on the Piaf timeline, resting shamelessly on the bold shoulders of Marion Cotillard, whose steadily melting face and ossifying body is a triumph of technical thesping—which is to say, impeccably primped for award consideration. (PG-13) ED GONZALEZ Neptune: 6:30 p.m. Fri., June 1; 3:15 p.m. Sat., June 2.

The Life of Reilly

There's no problem with the premise of lionizing an eccentric D-list actor such as Charles Nelson Reilly—who died last week—through a 90-minute documentary. But The Life of Reilly isn't really a documentary. Rather, it's a largely unfunny piece of lazy, self-indulgent filmmaking—relying almost exclusively on Reilly's one-man stage show, Save It for the Stage, to tell his life story. While Reilly is occasionally amusing through sheer weirdness, there are more laughs in Alec Baldwin's five-minute Reilly SNL imitation ("scrumtrulescent!") than in this entire "film." Ignoring his pop-culture fame (notably TV's Match Game), he mostly discusses the most minute details of his hard-to-swallow upbringing, in which he narrowly escaped a deadly circus fire, his aunt was lobotomized, his father was carted off in a straitjacket, and monkeys flew out of his ass. The most poignant moments of the film come toward the end, when Reilly discusses his deep friendship with Burt Reynolds. And yes, when a film's most poignant moments involve heartfelt discussions of Burt Reynolds, that's a major problem. (NR) MIKE SEELY Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 4; 4 p.m. Sun., June 10.

Nina's Journey

Hey, no one's ever made a movie about the Holocaust before. Am I wrong? Well, yes, but never a documentary? That's been done, too? OK—how about a combination? Would that be doubly fresh or doubly stale? Swedish director Lena Einhorn has all the right intentions in relating her mother's life story, as she mixes together interviews, re-enactments, and newsreel footage of the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazis smashing through Poland. But Black Book or Sophie's Choice this is not: Survival is chiefly a matter of luck and convenient favors for Nina (played in the dramatizations by the healthy-looking Agnieszka Grochowska). And it's true that life and death were meted out randomly in the Holocaust. But neither passive Nina nor her journey are particularly dynamic, making the old newsreels (marching armies, diving Stukas, etc.) the most interesting part of the film. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Lincoln Square: 6:15 p.m. Sun., June 3. Egyptian: 7 p.m. Tues., June 5.

No Regret

Why do I keep falling in love with South Korean male prostitutes? Why, why, why? In part because orphaned 19-year-old hustler Su-min (Lee Young-hoon) is handsome and damaged; in part because unhappily closeted businessman Jae-min (Lee Han) sees something better in him. And in himself. I won't quite go so far as to say that this is the Korean-language equivalent of E.M. Forster's Maurice, but it's close. That is, if Forster had added car crashes, kidnapping schemes, and lines like, "Of all the cocks I suck every night, why should yours be special?" But Lee and Lee make a happy couple, even if No Regret takes a rather long and sometimes melodramatic path to their coupledom. There's a lovely scene when Su-min visits Jae-min's empty office late at night. Seen from the building next door, they slow dance among the cubicles and copiers, just one window of light in an unkind city. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9:15 Fri., June 1. Egyptian: 4 p.m. Mon., June 4.

Rocket Science

I guess the air was even thinner at Sundance this year, where Rocket Science was embraced, sold, and lazily compared to the work of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, etc.). It's nowhere near as good, nor does it touch the documentary Spellbound—to which it also drew comparison, not only because Jeffrey Blitz directed both. Here the subject is high-school debate teams in New Jersey, based on Blitz's own experience as an awkward, stuttering teen. But don't be fooled. Rocket Science again demonstrates the phenomenon of "festival goggles" (as Variety recently put it), and it's this year's successor to Thumbsucker—another twee coming-of-age flick that appeals to the trucker-hat-and-bell-bottom set but never pulls its head out of the suburban lawn. There's simply no script here to provide a story destination for attractive and capable young leads Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick (as his manipulative, driven, debate-team Svengali and major crush, like Tracy Flick but aware of her faults). Blitz is merely a collector of moments, plus the occasional solid laugh, without anything bigger in mind than that his shy, stammering hero must, yes, come of age. If only Sundance would do the same. (R) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 2. Lincoln Square: 7 p.m. Mon., June 4.

Running on Empty

Giving yourself a Sisyphean task usually—or always—signals trouble. What mythical goal must be reached, what spiritual crisis must be resolved, before everything magically becomes OK? And what if said task is selling life-insurance policies? The myth of the flying Dutchman, also the basis of Wagner's opera where condemned sailors roam eternally on their ghost ship, inspires German director Bülent Akinci's feature debut. It's a Death of a Salesman–esque take that wears its existential ruminations on its sleeve, making for some terrifically awkward conversations between Burkhard (Jens Harzer) and his clients. Thankfully, Akinci adds plenty of oddly endearing moments—tips on how to get instant empathy—to leaven Burkhard's inherently depressing job: reminding strangers they're going to die. Might a girl (Marina Galic) finally provide safe harbor for Burkhard? Maybe, although long shots overlooking the autobahn drape Running on Empty in Lynchian darkness. (NR) KARLA STARR. SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 2; 4 p.m. Mon., June 4.

Sounds of Sand

Anything that gets Americans thinking about Africa merits a certain level of respect, even if this French-language drama plays like a National Geographic spread come to life. Director Marion Hänsel deliberately keeps us vague on national identities and borders—the drought, civil war, and banditry afflicting a family in search of water could be set in the Congo, Darfur, or Sierra Leone, as far as we know. Misery is universal, yes, but it's the specifics that make up a story. Sounds of Sand proceeds on a more fundamental, even mythic level: A patriarch takes his family into the desert, where family ties—not religious faith—are tested by men with AK-47s (not by God). When his daughter, devalued by tribal culture, asks whether the white contrail of a jet up in the sky means they might be rescued, he answers, "I don't think they even know we exist." Sounds of Sand usefully reminds us they do, though it'll never be shown as an in-flight movie. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 1 p.m. Sat., June 2. Pacific Place: 7 p.m. Tues., June 5.

Still Alive. A Film About Krzysztof Kieslowski

Reach for your Red-White-Blue DVD three-pack, or find your copy of The Double Life of Véronique behind the radiator, in preference to this dull disquisition on the famous Polish director (1941–96). Still Alive won't enhance your appreciation of those favorites, and it supplies remarkably little background or biographical detail about the man. Testimonials from friends, student movies, family photos—these are included, but without illuminating. We're told that while he worked for official state media before the Communists fell, he was called a "party tear shedder" for making insufficiently critical documentaries. Did he later feel guilty about this? He sure looked miserable, but nobody here asks or explains. It's left to mediocrities like Wim Wenders to comment, "He made films about things you can't see." Yes, and I eat apples that are red. Says Kieslowski in one interview clip, "You have to believe that a few frames [of film]...contain more than what is recorded." Not here. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 5 p.m. Fri., June 1; 5 p.m. Thurs., June 7.

Syndromes and a Century

He's not exactly what you'd call a master of suspense, but Apichatpong Weerasethakul's enigmas are anything but predictable. Known to his pals as Joe, the Thai avant-popster returns two years after the critical success Tropical Malady with another two-part brain tickler. Are these parallel tales a Buddhist romance in which dual sets of more or less congruent personalities experience two different sets of lives working in two different hospitals? An attempt at 3-D narrative depth? To add to the mystery, the filmmaker has called the movie, commissioned by the New Crowned Hope festival to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, a story about his parents before they met. (NR) J. HOBERMAN SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 4; 4:30 p.m. Thurs., June 7.

2 Days in Paris

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and now...Before Sunset With a Vengeance? Whatever the label, the Richard Linklater–less Julie Delpy now steps behind the camera to direct a relationship flick that's hardly original but intermittently enjoyable. She and Adam Goldberg play a quarrelsome New York couple visiting her folks in Paris, a city not treated too differently than in Art Buchwald's Don't Drink the Water (or Woody Allen's TV adaptation of same). In other words, a familiar place fraught with light comedy, cultural incomprehension, and gags about hygiene and food—all of which Goldberg has down pat. ("This whole city smells like lamb," he complains.) Plus fat American tourists in Bush T-shirts; Goldberg even wears a Gitmo shirt, just so we know where things stand politically. Delpy's directing style is rather willfully loopy and scattered, like her character. Neither she nor 2 Days emulsifies into anything substantial, yet the film works as a kind of dithering emotional diary. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 8:30 p.m. Sat., June 2. Lincoln Square: 7 p.m. Tues., June 5.

Woman on the Beach

He's hardly a household name, but South Korea's Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man) has become a festival champion (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors played SIFF '01). Like its predecessors, Woman on the Beach is a deadpan, melancholy erotic comedy. The typical Hong situation—a callow thirtysomething male ambivalently woos a self-possessed if vulnerable woman—sounds like midperiod Woody Allen, but Hong's elliptical, riff-based humor, usually predicated on alcohol-induced disinhibition, is drier and more pointed. Only one of Hong's movies has previously snared a distributor; Woman on the Beach, which could be his best, remains in play. (NR) J. HOBERMAN Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 3. Pacific Place: 4 p.m. Tues., June 5.

 
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