SIFF Week Four: Picks & Pans

Alien Autopsy In the long history of fine Fox Network programming, the 1995 special Alien Autopsy: (Fact or Fiction?) is second only to 2003's Man vs. Beast in terms of overall ridiculousness. The Jonathan Frakes–hosted special purportedly contained never-before-seen footage of an intergalactic visitor who crash-landed in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. The creators of the footage, Ray Santilli and Gary Shoefield, eventually admitted it was fake. This British comedy fictionalizes the story of how those two conspired to make millions from the hoax. Sounds great, only the movie has no idea what it wants to be: It's neither media satire nor buddy picture nor exploratory sci-fi. It's not really much of anything. The only highlight is Harry Dean Stanton, brilliant and criminally underused in a supporting role. His hilarious turn makes this a great future DVD rental for a late night with a couple of beers, but that's about it. (PG-13) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: midnight Fri., June 15. Neptune: 7:15 p.m. Sun., June 17. Angels in the Dust Nineteen years ago, Marion and Con Cloete walked away from a privileged life in Johannesburg and poured their life savings into an orphanage and school in a barren village. Today, as we see in Louise Hogarth's documentary, the Cloetes feed, clothe, educate, and board 250 children, along with another 280 day students from the surrounding areas. A shocking percentage of the kids have lost parents to AIDS, or are infected themselves, often from being raped, the consequence of the stubborn belief in the myth that sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV. Angels takes an intimate, unstinting, ground's-eye view of the biological and social diseases ravaging Africa, making public-policy debate about AIDS in Africa seems distant and esoteric. No surprise that it's heartbreaking to hear the stories of prepubescent girls being raped and prostituted, of babies kept in tiny crates like veal calves, and to watch a man dying of AIDS. Even the humor is grim, as when feisty, tireless Marion chats with her helpers about a promiscuous HIV-infected man they dub "the serial killer." The tone of the gossip is no different than a street-corner conversation, except in this case, every single one of his former girlfriends has died. Though Hogarth illustrates the children's plight, the film lacks a narrative thread, and its 95 minutes feel overlong. (NR) HUAN HSU Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 14; 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 16. Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe Recent biodocs have an unfortunate tendency toward desperate mythologizing ("Though today forgotten, so-and-so changed history"); this clips-and-interviews portrait of late collector-curator Sam Wagstaff is no exception, ornamented with breathlessly overwrought narration. But Wagstaff's life nevertheless holds up as the doc makes a case for his primary influence on the rise of minimalism and the market for vintage photography. His relationship with the much younger Mapplethorpe—an only-in-New York mixture of love, lust, mentorship, mutual inspiration, and careerism—provides the tale's fascinating core, much of it told through the reminiscences of close friend Patti Smith. (NR) ED HALTER Harvard Exit: 7:15 p.m. Wed., June 13. Egyptian: 4:15 p.m. Thurs., June 14. The Bubble SIFF Emerging Master Eytan Fox continues his exploration of Israeli and Palestinian queer identity in The Bubble, his most accomplished film to date. The movie follows three roommates living in the chic young part of Tel Aviv. When one guy's Arab boyfriend moves in, it forces everyone to confront conflicts both external and internal. This fresh, believable ensemble film is incredibly absorbing and full of fascinating characters; it also forgoes the forced coincidences and preaching of Crash and Babel. Yousef "Joe" Sweid gives a compelling performance as the Palestinian man caught between two worlds. Ohad Knoller's turn as his boyfriend is equally captivating. (Both have appeared in Fox's previous films; note that his 2002 Yossi & Jagger plays the Egyptian, 11 a.m. Sat., June 16.) Unlike many other SIFF dramas, The Bubble could actually be longer than its 117 minutes (which might help smooth out the ending). If you haven't seen his earlier films, including Walk on Water, now is the time to introduce yourself to Eytan Fox. He's going to be around for a while. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. Thurs., June 14; 12:45 p.m. Sat., June 16. Expired A date movie only for couples whose relationships are already 100 percent solid and secure as bedrock, this darkish comedy casts Samantha Morton as an unhappy L.A. meter reader who lives with her stroke-afflicted, mute mother (Teri Garr) and has exactly one friend (Illeana Douglas, always welcome). Into her lonely life comes a fellow meter jockey (Jason Patric), and talk about a catch! Military mustache, serious anger-management issues, estranged from his adult son, addicted to cyberporn, and he insults our heroine at every opportunity (wittingly and not). So naturally she falls for him. Women of Seattle (or women everywhere, for that matter), tell me you haven't seen—or, worse, experienced—this story before: You think you can change a guy, you make every compromise and accommodation, you even forgive his badgering you to lose weight, but...he's still Jason Patric. And admittedly a very funny Jason Patric (a first in his film career). Morton's meek forbearance of his truculent badgering—"Are you being sarcastic?"—will make you laugh, cringe, and possibly cry, although writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi consistently pushes her bittersweet tale past the point of plausibility (call it the realm of Eleanor Rigby absurdism). It's as though she lacks the good sense, like her heroine, to know when to say, "Enough!" (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. Thurs., June 14. Lincoln Square: 4 p.m. Sat., June 16. "The Family Picture Show" SIFF's annual collection of family-friendly shorts is a meager showing at best. Running just under one hour, the movies are high on charm but are otherwise unimpressive. The best is Tommy the Kid, which follows a young boy trying to retrieve his stolen bicycle. Second best is Shipwrecked, a melancholy tale of a lad's active imagination as he strolls an idyllic beach. Following that are a creepy film about a mouse with a bad French accent who falls in love with the scantily clad female tenants in his building; an animated riff on childhood and growing old; and a middle-aged man who wants to fly into space. Quality—and female characters—are in short supply across the board. Then comes Little Brother, a short from Singapore about feuding siblings so incomprehensible that newborns undoubtedly created it. Believe it or not, the kids are better off at home in front of the TV. (NR) FRANK PAIVA SIFF Cinema: 11 a.m. Sat., June 16. How to Cook Your Life "Treat your food like you would your eyesight" advises Edward Espe Brown, Zen priest and cook, repeating the words of 13th-century master Dogen Kigen. Brown's experience as the tensho (monastery cook) at California's Tassajara Zen Mountain Center has led him to write several influential cookbooks, notably 1970's The Tassajara Bread Book. This documentary, gorgeously filmed by German director Doris Dörrie (Men...), profiles Brown as he leads several meditation-and-cooking retreats. Though he talks about learning to follow his teacher's instruction, "When you wash the rice, wash the rice"—finding the universal in the present moment—Dörrie can't stay so focused. Her film staggers all over the place, flittering between Brown and extraneous knife saleswomen or obese Americans (what apparently happens when one doesn't eat mindfully). It's a shame she can't stick with the wise, irritable, funny Brown. Near the end, when he tells his students how their food shouldn't be perfect but sincere, reflecting on the beauty of a pair of battered aluminum teapots, the film, and the audience, finds its center. (NR) JONATHAN KAUFFMAN SIFF Cinema: 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 15; 11 a.m. Sun., June 17. Interview All journalists are lying, scheming manipulators. Actors, too. So it's a perfect pairing when a reporter (director Steve Buscemi) is forced to interview a supposedly airheaded starlet (Sienna Miller), for whom he feels perfect indifference and possibly contempt. And the feeling is mutual: He doesn't know her work (including that slasher-movie classic Killer Body 4), and boasts selfishly about his actually flagging career. She promptly ends the interview, but a plot contrivance soon puts them back in her gigantic loft, where they spend the night talking, sparring, lying, soul-baring, and even kissing while supplied with lots of booze, cigarettes, and coke. (Just like my professional life, in other words.) With insights like "You're just lying to yourself," there's no way for Interview to be highly substantial; it plays like a one-act with two enjoyable performers simply horsing around. (It's actually a close remake of the late Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's 2003 Interview, which cast an actual starlet and journalist as themselves; too bad tabloid queen Miller didn't play herself here and, say, Christopher Hitchens the journalist.) But a cauldron of lies, deceit, and brinksmanship is always fun to watch. Buscemi is scheduled to attend SIFF, so maybe he'll explain whether any of his real-life interviews have gone this entertainingly awry. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Sat., June 16; 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 17. I Really Hate My Job And movies like this make me feel the same way. One long night in a London bistro never felt so long as in this women's ensemble piece, which criminally fails to maximize the use of rats and Danny Huston. The latter appears only briefly, as himself, late in the evening as a frazzled five-woman crew attempts to cope with rude customers, culinary disasters, and five—yes, count 'em, five—different sets of personal crises, all of which must be addressed during the course of the interminable shift. After Huston, Neve Campbell is the most recognizable name in the cast, and Alexandra Maria Lara (who appeared in Offset earlier in the fest) the most effective screen presence. But all their talents essentially fall face-down on the kitchen floor, then are quickly flung back on the stove and pan-seared in whimsy. Director Oliver Parker gratuitously employs camera hiccups and POV shots (even for the rats) to garnish this thoroughly inedible dish. He's the kind of director who thinks farce means shouting; it's as though he grew up in an England where Fawlty Towers doesn't exist. I know where I'm not eating dinner tonight. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Wed., June 13. Lincoln Square: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 15. It's Winter I like depressing Iranian cinema as much as the next guy, probably more. Only It's Winter isn't sufficiently depressing, and it isn't sufficiently Iranian. Director Rafi Pitts was born there, but has been based in Europe for 25 years. Accordingly, this bleak tale of a drifter who falls for a widow in the ugly outskirts of Tehran basically plays like warmed-over neorealism (Antonioni's Il Grido in particular) with annoying folk songs added. There's no work in the squalid bazaars and auto shops, so the woman's first husband goes abroad for employment; word comes back that he's dead, and we hear her wailing inside her distant house—maybe not for love, but for the uncertainty of how she can feed daughter and mother-in-law from her wages at a garment factory. The drifter also hears and watches her house from a distance; he's a kind of Persian Elvis, with hair slicked back, talking trash about piety and family, angry that his work at an auto yard is beneath him. The woman marries him—again, we suspect, more from desperation than love. Then, no surprise, husband No. 2 is also left unemployed. Weirdly, though the woman (Mitra Hajjar) appears to be the sole professional in the cast, Winter focuses entirely on the useless drifter (Ali Nicksaulat, a cinder block of emotion). That the movie should've been about her dilemma, not his dreams, would've been apparent to Panahi, Kiarostami, or Makhmalbaf. Unfortunately, Pitts went to film school in the wrong place. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 7 p.m. Fri., June 15. Lincoln Square: 4:15 p.m. Sun., June 17. Joshua See this one early, people; do not wait for its July release. Every few decades we get a superior demon-child thriller (see: The Bad Seed, The Omen). In part they work because they cast unknown child actors instead of preteen stars looking for that change-of-pace role to ease them out of the G-rated ghetto (avoid: Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son). Here the implacably menacing 9-year-old (Jacob Kogan) is a well-coiffed piano prodigy obsessed with mummies and Set, the Egyptian god of chaos. No wonder his Fifth Avenue parents (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) soon have cause to regret his private-school tuition. He's a savant in psychological warfare, prompted—of course—by the arrival of an infant sister who disturbs the family balance. The baby's incessant crying, the mother's nervous collapse, the father's bewildered reaction, the boy mysteriously popping up behind them at night—Joshua makes parenthood itself into a horror movie. And just across the park, in view of the family apartment, stands the Dakota, making little Joshua close cousin to Rosemary's baby. (R) BRIAN MILLER Lincoln Square: 6:30 p.m. Thurs., June 14. Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 16. Kyle A lesser trip to Loach-land, this handheld vérité video drama forgoes most dialogue, eliminates exposition and score, and enacts its story with mostly nonprofessional actors. Only one character has a name, 19-year-old Kyle (Aaron Grey), new in town and working as a grocer's assistant. Elsewhere in town—though you'd never know it's the same town—a single mother (Ailise O'Neil) struggles to raise her young daughter, and for a long while Kyle simply contrasts their lumpen-prole routines without explaining anything. Dead-end jobs, dead-end lives, and inarticulate characters with chewy Birmingham (I'm told) accents—but Ken Loach or Mike Leigh has done more with less, yes? Only Kyle, naturalistic to a fault, never dramatizes the mysterious connection between its two main characters, it just presses our noses into human behavior—the mother considers prostitution, Kyle crushes on a fickle girl—mistaking intimacy for perspective. When the secret bond between these two is finally revealed, the only "ah-ha" is to recall how many other films have done the same thing so much better. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9:15 p.m. Sat., June 16; 4 p.m. Sun., June 17. La León I'd like to expressly thank La León for giving me 85 minutes to mentally reorganize and reprioritize my life. If this isn't SIFF's most boring and pointless offering of the fest, I shudder to think what could beat it. This Argentine drama won a special mention for excellence in gay and lesbian film at February's Berlin International Film Festival. The only possible explanation is that the entire German moviegoing populace has gone blind. The plot involves a young reed harvester whose constant male-to-male hookups in the forest alienate him from the rest of the community. All the characters ride a boat called El León. Why the boat is called El León and the movie is called La León is beyond me. There are many beautiful black-and-white shots of villagers looking longingly into the river as the boat chugs past. Perhaps they're looking for a better life, or a better movie. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 5 p.m. Thurs., June 14. SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 16. The Little Book of Revenge Exactly the type of movie Hollywood snatches up for a bombastic remake, this French-language Canadian film is part thriller, part dark comedy, and part romance. It succeeds in all three genres, constantly surprising with simple twists rooted in its characters' natures—not the screenwriter's manual of outlandish plot devices. The revenge in question involves Bernard, an overworked accountant at a Montreal jewelry store who plans to rob his tyrannical employer, Monsieur Vendôme. As Bernard prepares for the heist, he must contend with Vendôme's shady business dealings and win back the love of his daughter and ex-wife. Directed by Jean-François Pouliot, whose hilarious Seducing Dr. Lewis played SIFF '04, Revenge is tight and well balanced, maintaining consistent style and tone no matter where the script wanders. Marc Béland's excellent performance as Bernard makes us care about a deadbeat dad and criminal. Catch this one now, before Jerry Bruckheimer gets his stupid mitts on it. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 15. Lincoln Square: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 17. Madrigal Once Castro kicks the bucket, I predict Hollywood will start offshoring dozens of projects to film in Cuba. This very well-made movie looks fantastic, is filled with great-looking faces, and makes use of Havana's vintage cars and colonial-era wrought-iron architecture. However, I don't think writer-director Fernando Pérez will be getting any future screenwriting work from the studios. Madrigal plays like some desk-drawer orphan left behind by Borges: We've got a handsome actor in a play who falls for a chubby woman in the audience; he works on a futuristic story during their unlikely romance; then we see the film of that story (cast with familiar faces); and then the snake eats its own...oh, wait, no spoilers here. If you can get past the narrative tricks, the romance between Carlos Enrique Almirante and Liety Chaviano is affecting. The zaftig beauty waits for her lover in her huge, crumbling apartment—possibly his ulterior goal?—alone and expectantly like a marble statue shedding real tears. (And Almirante also resembles something Michelangelo might've carved.) Silly plotting and rampant symbolism aside, Madrigal has the power of several resonant images. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 6:30 p.m. Wed., June 13. Lincoln Square: 6:45 p.m. Sat., June 16. Miss Gulag Siberia, cold. But women in prison camps there? Surprisingly hot. And tough. And troubled. Some are in for drugs, others for assault, a few have murdered. And participation in the annual beauty contest counts toward good behavior when it comes time for parole. Maria Yatskova's documentary Miss Gulag is artfully shot and, though it drags a bit at times, compelling from the start. Says one inmate, all dolled up in red, "Women should be beautiful, not just on the outside, but in here. Who, me? I'm in for assault." Inmates spend weeks conceiving and creating elaborate costumes for the three-part contest. But this doc is about more than who's crowned Miss Spring; it's a window into the isolation and hardship of a generation struggling to survive in post-Soviet Russia. You'll learn their stories, you'll see them in the pageant, and you may be left wondering what it means to be free in a place like Siberia. In the words of one woman newly released after seven years in the clink, "Everything is different. Everything got gray. Everything is old." Says another, "I know the meaning of utter misery. In Russia, it's normal; so I'm not ashamed." (NR) AIMEE CURL Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 15; 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 16. Molière Laurent Tirard's Molière imagines what the celebrated playwright might have been up to during the one period in his life that 17th-century records can't account for, and if you believe this French-made romp, it was the stuff of Molière's late, reputation-making plays: deceit, cuckoldry, intrigue, and romance—true, false, and bittersweet. If you overlook a frowsy shoulder-length wig, current French hottie Romain Duris (The Beat My Heart Skipped) is decent enough as Molière, but Fabrice Luchini and Laura Morante are the film's pure gold as a ridiculous country parvenu and his tempting, tempted wife. Staging physical farce that makes its on-screen audience burst their corsets laughing is tricky; this succeeds intermittently, marking Molière—which opens in theaters Aug. 10—as pleasant but hardly memorable. (Note: Tirard is scheduled to attend this SIFF-closing gala screening.) (PG-13) SHEILA BENSON Cinerama: 6:30 p.m. Sun., June 17. Nömadak Tx This documentary features beautiful music and gorgeous scenery, but as a movie, it's a total bust. The film follows two Basque musicians as they travel the globe playing the txalaparta, an ancient, indigenous percussion instrument. The pair visit the Arctic Circle, Algeria, and Mongolia, among other exotic locales. We watch as they build txalapartas out of stone, wood, and ice, and then record with local singers and musicians. It sounds more interesting than it is. Nömadak Tx is co-written and co-directed by its stars, who never think to interview themselves. As such, we learn nothing about them the entire movie other than where they're from. What's worse, they don't particularly interview anyone along the way, either. A bunch of random, smiling tribal people pass by with little fanfare. The scenes are ineptly shot from weird angles. By the time a cheerful closing montage pops up, it feels impersonal and undeserved—like "We Are the World," only on txalaparta. (NR) FRANK PAIVA SIFF Cinema: 7 p.m. Thurs., June 14; 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 15. Nu. Sometimes when I get really depressed because, say, my wife is in a coma, I like to drive naked through Belgium and France. Which is funny, because this movie starts in Holland, though half the dialogue is in English. But back to driving around naked. So, wife in coma; best friend tries to cheer me up; and we even meet this cute British cello babe on our nudist road trip who also likes to read poetry aloud. With her clothes on, unfortunately. But coma wife gets half-naked—which is maybe a little creepy. As does best friend while skinny-dipping; hey, is this a new subtext to our friendship or what? Anyhoo, did I mention that coma wife is speaking to me from the beyond (coma land?) and sometimes appears in my car? And that I'm off my meds and suicidal? So driving around naked has got to be the best possible remedy for my mental health—textbook therapy, for sure. Because, for filmmaker Jan-Willem van Ewijk (who plays the best friend, a shallow yuppie with secrets), it's all about, you know, moving on. Nakedly. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 15; 1:15 p.m. Sun., June 17. Tomorrow Morning You'll wish it were. With a guy returning to Belgrade after a dozen years in Canada, home to marry a fellow expat Serb, you'd expect big revelations to follow. For instance, why'd he go away during those war-torn 1990s? Might gangsters be involved? Stolen money? The ghost of Slobodan Milosevic? Nope—just a bunch of old drinking buddies, who lead him around the city boozing, singing pop songs, and grousing about why he should want to be a Canadian yuppie. Well, believe me, after 82 minutes of this tedium, we should all become Canadian yuppies—and sooner if possible. Just to make Morning more annoying, there are amateurish testimonial videos left behind by our hero's best friend, an artist-musician type who died for reasons unexplained. (Again, might there be a plot here?) In one vignette he sings, "Pass away quickly, my youth." You'll feel the same way about the movie. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 15. Lincoln Square: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 17. Walk the Talk Cary Elwes plays Erik, a motivational speaker whose sound family structure is based on communication, daily morning workouts, and mutual respect. When Erik takes in his troubled nephew Roy (Evan Ellingson from 24) as a P.R. stunt, the teen shakes the delicate foundation of his success. That Erik is an insecure sham should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Little Miss Sunshine or any movie ever about motivational speakers. Coupled to the nonsurprise, Walk the Talk takes place in a bizarre acting vacuum where performers appear in the same scene but don't truly interact with one another. The script is already predictable, so the stilted delivery makes things worse. Still, there's a certain comfort in the film's familiar path. Like a Hallmark TV movie, you can duck out to make a phone call and come back 20 minutes later without really missing a beat. You smile at the end, but the memory is gone the moment you change the channel. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: 9:15 p.m. Fri., June 15. SIFF Cinema: 3:45 p.m. Sun., June 17. Yella You've seen this movie before, only not in German. Fleeing an abusive and possibly dangerous ex-husband, Yella (the perpetually wary, skittish Nina Hoss) follows the prospect of a new job—and new life—to a sterile hotel and a series of glassy conference rooms, where she parses the spreadsheets of a traveling businessman who seems quite uninterested in her unhappy past. They form a team, traveling hotel to hotel, meeting to meeting, bluffing companies in need of investors, then exchanging envelopes full of cash in darkened parking lots. It's a shady limbo world that suits the businessman (Devid Striesow) just fine, and if their activities are illegal, that doesn't bother him, either. Yella seems OK with the financial deceptions, too, only she keeps suffering these recurrent ear problems caused by an automotive mishap early in the film. Why does she keep hearing the sound of roaring water? Would that Yella had concentrated on being a modern, Teutonic Bonnie and Clyde instead of answering that question. Swindlers—and later lovers—on the road is a movie that works in any language. Unfortunately, Yella's final narrative detour is just as universal, and just as much a gimmick. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 7:15 p.m. Wed., June 13; 1:45 p.m. Sat., June 16.

 
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