Week 1 Picks & Pans

THURSDAY, MAY 22Battle in SeattleA sort of teargas–drenched version of Crash, Battle in Seattle is a gritty evocation of a tumultuous moment all but erased from recent memory. It too marks an actor's debut as writer and director, in this case Queen of the Damned's Stuart Townsend, who directs girlfriend Charlize Theron, as well as Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, and Lost's Michelle Rodriguez. The film, shot documentary-style by the brilliant cinematographer Barry Aykroyd (United 93), is a multilayered and unexpectedly thrilling retelling of the 1999 riots that engulfed Seattle during the World Trade Organization's meetings, which were cut short by protesters who ranged from righteous activists to hell-raising anarchists. Townsend has little patience for either the cops who willy-nilly attacked peaceful protesters, or for some of the protesters themselves whose reckless antics wound up stifling necessary debate among those who came to Seattle demanding the WTO treat poor countries with the same deference shown its richer members. (NR) ROBERT WILONSKY McCaw Hall: 7 p.m. Thurs., May 22.FRIDAY, MAY 23BallastLance Hammer's remarkable debut feature is also the debut for his entire principal cast—nonprofessional actors recruited on location in Canton, Miss. It's the story of a mother and son trying to make ends meet, a story rendered fragmentary, mysterious, and poetic, revealing its central characters and relationships gradually and from a distance, as if we were entering into a private dream. Ballast is a movie marked by the most unusual mix of inspirations: Charles Burnett's impressionistic renderings of black American life, the Dardenne brothers' neorealist city symphonies, and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' ecstatic widescreen exploration of rural vistas. But Hammer has digested those influences and formed from them a wholly original meditation on lost souls trying to gain a foothold in a bleak, treacherous landscape. It is, I think, the single most impressive film to premiere at Sundance since Half Nelson in 2006. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Pacific Place: 7 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Sat., May 24.)Before the RainsBritish plantation owner and colonialist extraordinaire Henry Moores (Linus Roache) fancies himself the cowboy of Kerala, cavorting around the jungle with his Indian mistress, Sajani (Nandita Das), as he makes plans to expand his operations by branching out into spices: "Today, tea; tomorrow...cinnamon!" Coyly placed portents (a crushed robin's nest, a prominently displayed pistol) assure us that something is destined to go awry, and indeed, Henry's life begins to unravel almost immediately: Labor unrest thwarts his plan to build a transport road, even as his sharp-eyed wife (the wonderfully headstrong Jennifer Ehle) joins him in India, and Sajani's brutal husband starts to suspect that she's been unfaithful. Henry is less a character than a metaphor for imperialism; despite his buttoned-up bravado, he can't face the consequences of his carelessness with both Sajani and Kerala itself. As you might expect from a Merchant-Ivory production, Before the Rains is saddled with a predictable lushness—even a streak of blood on a dirty window is aestheticized until it looks like stained glass—and the sensuality here can crowd out the sense. Still, director Santosh Sivan imparts a vastness and a sense of wonder to the film, qualities reminiscent of a Thomas Cole painting: They remind you why the Brits thought conquering India was a good idea in the first place. (PG-13) JULIA WALLACE Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 24.)Continental, A Film Without GunsIn the grand tradition of The Savages, last year's feel-good blockbuster about dysfunctional families and dementia, this movie bills itself as a "black comedy"—probably because that's the most enticing description its distributors can find to market a slow-paced deliberation on modern alienation whose humor arises out of awkward encounters between clinically lonely people. Quebecois director Stéphane Lafleur's first feature tracks the rollicking adventures of four characters chosen for maximum pathos and filmed in gorgeously geriatric blues and greens: a middle-aged man training to become an insurance salesman; a hotel clerk working the midnight shift who leaves telephone messages for herself; a junk-store owner on furlough from his marriage who tries video poker to pay for dental surgery; a woman whose husband has disappeared. Occasionally the characters talk to each other. For three blissful seconds, in fact, two share a laugh. (NR) JONATHAN KAUFFMAN Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 24.) The Edge of HeavenFatih Akin's Heaven wears current events on its sleeve, feeling out the state of German-Turkish relationships as the former Ottomans clean house for EU membership, and the demographic earthquake of 70 million Muslims waits at Europe's door. Examining a continent whose increasingly porous borders have drastically undermined a long-standing homogeneity is very much at the center of new European cinema. Akin previously offered pseudo-provocations and a superficially deceptive simulacrum of Art with his punk-posturing 2004 Head-On (also at SIFF). Heaven ups the ambition: Its screenplay is a Dickensian network of happenstance, serving to intertwine six characters of different ages, nationalities, and castes. Three parent-child sets fracture, then reconcile/recombine. This expression of growth-through-trauma mostly involves actors hugging and making wistful "older and wiser" expressions while looking into the middle distance. (Everyone gets along. That the Turks believe in a different God than the Germans, and actually believe at that, is apparently not a pressing concern.) If the united Europe aspires to compete with America globally, this is good news—they've found their own multiculti Paul Haggis! (NR) NICK PINKERTON Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 25).Elite SquadDirty Harry in Portuguese, this latest dispatch from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro lacks the artistry and sweep of City of God, but it carries the steel-jacketed urgency of an AK-47 slug. With a cumbersome narrative (start mid-gunfight, loop back for an hour, then pick it up again), Elite Squad is told entirely from the cops' perspective. And I mean told—voiceover is extensive from the Jack Webb figure here, Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Maura). His wife is expecting a baby, so Nascimento needs to pick a replacement before he can retire from his ultraviolent, ultradangerous job. Through the stories of two candidates (one smart but naive, the other brave and impulsive), we get a grand tour of police corruption, NGO incompetence, and spoiled college kids who use Foucault to justify buying dope from hoodlums and hating the cops who hassle them for it. None of the dealers or residents of the hillside slums are given a voice or depth. But you can't dismiss Elite Squad so easily; we had our Death Wish and Dirty Harry, too, and all these films speak to a civil disgust with crime, a political tipping point. (The film has been a huge hit in Brazil, whose cops have a reputation for shooting first, questioning later.) Director José Padilha did a better, fairer job of portraying social conditions in his hostage documentary Bus 174. This time he neglects to show us the passengers. (R) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 24.)The FallSomething like a pain-fueled, R-rated Princess Bride, The Fall straddles the intertwined worlds of storytelling and story. One half is a child's-eye-view tour of the convalescent wing of a Los Angeles hospital, set during the infancy of the film industry. Heartbroken-to-the-brink-of-suicide stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) finds himself fabricating a tale about a band of brethren brigands to entertain a recuperating 9-year-old girl (Catinca Untaru, so adorable that I vacillated between feeling saccharine-sick and wanting to adopt her). The other half of the film involves the girl's visualization of this improvised bedtime story, as the multinational, one-dimensional bandits sally forth in billowing slo-mo on an epic journey to topple a tyrannical governor. As Roy's depression deepens, the story darkens accordingly. Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell), a commercial-shoot hired gun, grabbed vistas for his bloviated pictorialist fantasia on cross-continental on-location shoots, pulling together a supersaturated, border-blurring National Geographic travelogue of steppes, deserts, and Ottoman extravagance (the director's Indian origins gives the movie's references to Orientalism an interesting twist). If the human details are often problematic, the IMAX-grade bombast, ceremonial camera, and Jodorowsky-esque eclecticism still combine for a singular spectacle. (R) NICK PINKERTON Uptown: 4:30 p.m. (Also: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 25.)The Last MistressAsia Argento is not only the most fearless actress of her generation, but also one of the most intelligent and commanding. In this brainy bodice-ripper from Catherine Breillat, she hits a career high—tears, in fact, the roof off that gilt-paneled motherfucker—as a savagely energetic, supremely volitional courtesan. "A courtesan on the wane," per society gossip, "and very vulgar, I hear," Lady Vellini (Argento) is rumored to be the "illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador, [who] led a shady life in Seville before being rescued by a marriage to a wealthy English baronet." She is introduced as an odalisque, horizontal on a daybed as she greets her longtime lover, the aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). When she rises, the movie rises with her—alert, on guard, tumescent. The Last Mistress tells, in flashback, of the explosive affair between these two, starting from Vellini's intractable dismissal of de Marigny's advances, proceeding through a duel for her affections that leaves him wounded but alive, on to a lightning reversal of mind that brings her lips to his hairless chest, sucking his blood in amorous rapture. (NR) NATHAN LEE Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. (Also: Uptown: 4 p.m. Sun., May 25.)Opium: Diary of a MadwomanFor the central performance of Kirsti Stubø alone, this Hungarian nut-house story is worth seeing. And enduring. She's like the doubly insane love child of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, possessed by demons she can only express through graphomania and chronic masturbation (even at the same time). But there is no Haldol in 1913, only quack cures and "medical" devices that are by turns horrifying, comic, and baroque—enough to give Tim Burton nightmares. And if the cold-water baths, electrical shocks, upside-down spinning contraptions, and full-body restraints don't do the trick, there's always a prefrontal lobotomy (then considered a state-of-the-art treatment). Her doctor (Ulrich Thomsen) is no less freaky—a smack-shooting Freudian who, like his patient, is an obsessive writer. Only he records his daily opium consumption, word count, and sexual conquests (all the while aspiring to the decadent fiction of Arthur Schnitzler). Clearly they deserve each other. Director János Szász based his film on an eminent Hungarian neurologist's actual diaries, which came from that precise pre-WWI era when phrenology and penis envy could both exist as science. For this reason, the madness of Stubø's inmate seems the truest expression of a world on the brink. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. (Also: SIFF Cinema: 4:15 p.m. Sun., May 25.)PVC-1Some cineastes may recall the recent Russian Ark, which consisted of a single mind- and time-bending 96-minute take (a feat made possible by shooting in high-def video and recording to a hard drive strapped to the cameraman). That was an art film. This Colombian thriller, based on real events, is an entirely different animal. Bickering gunmen take over a farmhouse, glue mysterious plastic PVC tubing around the wife's head, and demand a ransom. The family, in a panic, heads to town, where some kind of police bomb-disposal expert is waiting. (There, he has to rummage around in his glove box for tools.) Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking—85 minutes in all—in real time as director/cameraman Spiros Stathoulopoulos crashes through bushes, jumps on and off of trucks, even rides a man-powered railroad car to follow the Valdez family. Though the bomb chirps and the minutes pass ominously, this is not Hitchcock. The same story could be rendered differently as a big-budget, multicamera production. But the absence of context and outside information, the relentless yet limited perspective, makes the experience that much more terrifying. Who are the ransomers? Does the family have the money? Is the bomb even real? None of these questions are answered until the very end. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. (Also: 9 p.m. Mon., May 26.)The Red AwnI have no idea what the title means, and there's nothing from SIFF to explain. However, this father-son grudge match, set in what looks to be a far Western province in rural China, is about much more than one family's problems. When graying Soong-hai returns home after years in the city, his wife is dead and his 17-year-old son, Young-tao, won't speak to him. (In fact, the kid may want to murder him.) They set out with another peasant as gypsy grain harvesters, trying to low-bid jobs with their motorized combine and cell phone. There's a race to harvest, we learn, and a shortage of labor. All the young men have gone to the cities, just as Soong-hai once did. (There, too, women are often trafficked into the sex trade.) To return home means defeat. Only the old work the land in modern China. Red Awn imparts all those themes in a few stray remarks—small talk in the field, jokes, workers drinking tea in the shade of a tractor. There's a new generational division among these fractured peasant families in their crumbling farmhouses and empty villages. There's money to be made in the south and east, and the only cautionary warnings come from near-silent examples like Soong-hai, whose son will not heed him. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 3:30 p.m. Sat., May 24.)Still LifeThe preeminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, Jia Zhangke returns with his fifth feature, an eccentric guided tour of postapocalyptic Fengjie—the ancient river city largely flooded and partially rebuilt several years ago as part of the monumental Three Gorges hydro project. But the movie is also an open-ended progress report. There are two protagonists and a pair of parallel narratives. In one, a stolid miner (Han Sanming) comes downriver in search of the bought wife who left him 16 years before and the daughter whom he's never seen. In the other, a young nurse (Zhao Tao) arrives in Fengjie to look for a husband who has been too busy making his fortune to stay in touch. Much of Still Life is simply devoted to these characters as they wend their respective ways through Fengjie's eerily half-demolished (or half-built) neighborhoods. Deconstruction would seem to be Fengjie's main industry: Old buildings are blown up, workers are sometimes obliged to remove unwilling tenants by force, and job-related injuries are rife. Without unduly belaboring the point, Jia suggests a pervasive, free-floating corruption. Everything is for sale. Money trumps all. But what's striking about Still Life is its micro-analytical curiosity: Judgment seems suspended—like the bridge that magically lights up over the Yangtze or the unlikely tightrope walker glimpsed in the movie's last shot. (NR) J. HOBERMAN SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. (Also: Uptown: 4:15 p.m. Mon., May 26.)The Wrecking CrewThis profile of L.A. session musicians in the '60s and '70s is like an anti–Behind the Music. These guys (and one gal), dubbed "the Wrecking Crew," were so busy knocking out hit records all day, there was really no time (let alone inclination) for meltdowns, feuds, or binges. But that doesn't make the doc any less entertaining, as director Denny Tedesco, son of the renowned guitarist Tommy, smartly weaves together history and interviews, never overhyping or milking for pathos, and making all his talking heads—even Cher—seem colorful and intelligent. A mostly-white analogue to the Funk Brothers (whose years as the Motown house band were chronicled in their own 2002 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown), the Crew was a loose affiliation of players who served as the uncredited backing band to countless early rock records, from the Monkees to the Beach Boys. Part of what's fascinating is that the musicianship is so subtle: Their greatness was in solid, unflappable consistency; they have the pride of craftsmen with lunch pails, not the narcissism of stars. Indeed, Tedesco's portrait of the studio musician's code of honor is so inspiring, and his characters so charming, that it didn't matter that most of this is music I loathe. (NR) MARK D. FEFER Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Mon., May 26.)SATURDAY, MAY 24All Will Be WellNeorealism in Poland: Your dad's an abusive drunk; your mom is bedridden with cancer; your older teen brother is retarded; you're so poor that you pay the bus fare with cod; and every male role model in the country is a chain-smoking alcoholic wearing a saggy old tracksuit. So Pawel (Adam Werstak), looking to be about 12, decides to run for a miracle—embarking on a multiday trek to the shrine of the Black Madonna to save his not-entirely-sympathetic Mum. ("I'll kill both of you some day!" she shrieks at Pawel and his jug-eared brother; some encouragement.) Alarmingly scrawny by the Xbox-and-Doritos standard of American youth, Pawel keeps running by virtue of his intense Catholic faith. Certainly his drunkard coach (Robert Wickiewicz) is little help, as he even sells off their support car for booze. And Pawel is a stubborn idealist, rebuffing the media and potential sponsors when they inevitably swoop down. "We won't build Poland this way," says a spurned businessman. But amid the somewhat confusing melodrama, director Tomasz Wiszniewski treats the kid's intransigence as a kind of miracle in itself. Building up Poland leaves no place for such piety, such purity, but soon they'll have Xbox and Doritos to go with the vodka, and the Madonna will receive no more visitors. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 11 a.m. (Also: 9:30 p.m. Tues., May 27.)Boy ABased on the 2004 novel by Jonathan Trigell (itself rooted in real news events), Boy A is the rare film to consider crime, punishment, and rehabilitation as a three-step process. We Americans usually stop at stage two, especially at the movies, but this British production insists on the whole moral cycle. Convicted for a felony as a maladjusted, bullied child, "Jack" (his protective new name) is released into Manchester under the close supervision of a state counselor (Peter Mullan, excellent). Now a decade older, Jack (Andrew Garfield) is more boy than man—a shy virgin with no idea how to meet women or make friends, unsophisticated about lying, which he must do to guard his identity. His progress forward, however, advances with our progress back to the crime, as director John Crowley expertly interpolates past and present. "I ain't that boy!" Jack insists. He's right, though he's wrong about the extent to which society will grant second chances. Garfield is a marvelous amalgam of eagerness and evasiveness; his character is only just discovering the world—including its goodness, and his—while unaware how treachery lies in the shadows. Scenes of his finding love with a co-worker (warm, womanly Katie Lyons) are all the more tender for the inexperience he's also afraid to confess. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: Egyptian: 11 a.m. Mon., May 26.)The Children of Huang ShiAs ploddingly familiar as it is good-looking, Roger Spottiswoode's drama, based on the life of an Englishman who saved an orphanage full of boys from Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists in the 1930s, distills China's pain into the story of one white Westerner—plus his romantic interest and a wry native sidekick—making a difference while world history rages around him. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a 21st-century Irish heartthrob appearing here with hair barely tamped down from its trendy coxcomb and an overcooked Oxbridge accent—is more incongruous than terrible as naive Brit George Hogg, who's saved from the Japanese by Chow Yun Fat (hogging the light relief as a Chinese guerrilla who enjoys blowing stuff up) and further redeemed when a self-appointed American nurse (a capable Radha Mitchell) dumps him at a barely functioning orphanage. Once there, Hogg has the time of his life planting veggies, fending off lice and foreign soldiers, and finally fleeing with the boys along the unforgiving Silk Road. Beautifully shot by House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, Huang Shi is a work from the heart hobbled at the get-go by the anxiety that no one will finance, release, or show up for such earnest material without recognizable stars under the age of 35, regularly paced explosions, and the usual narrative arc curving from despair to slim ray of hope. (R) ELLA TAYLOR Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. (Also: Uptown: 1:30 p.m. Mon., May 26.)Chris & Don: A Love StoryNowhere in this fine, quiet, richly-sourced documentary is the phrase "gay marriage" ever uttered. But then, the relationship at hand spanned three pre-political decades until 1986, when expat English writer Christopher Isherwood (The Berlin Stories) died in L.A. Today, in the same gloriously sunny, cozy Santa Monica cottage they shared, his surviving partner Don Bachardy, a portrait artist, leafs through dozens of often-nude sketches made during Isherwood's last days—and even after his death. It seems perfectly natural, and the film includes even more dazzling visual records—photos and color home movies from Venice in the '50s, and of mingling with the stars back home (including Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, and John Boorman). And in a nice nod to Cabaret, which made Isherwood's fortune, Michael York reads from the author's letters and diaries. Chris and Don met at ages 49 and 18, respectively, on the beach, where Don and his older brother (also gay) were trolling for sugar daddies. Was that so wrong? Their relationship—and this movie—prove otherwise. Boorman comments, "Isherwood had succeeded in cloning himself." To which Bachardy, speaking in the third person, agrees: "It was exactly what the young boy wanted." (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 1:15 p.m. Sun., May 25.)DustFor most, dust is a nuisance. And unless you're a big fan of documentaries about the stuff, you'll probably feel the same way about German director Hartmut Bitomsky's Dust. Though the film is beautifully shot, revealing the smallest dusty details, the topic itself can't support a 90-minute presentation spoken in German (with English subtitles). Dust may bring to mind a foreign version of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs With Mike Rowe—but without the witty host. Beginning with the philosophical "dust to dust" idea, the documentary had me at first. As it moves through various uses of the tiny particles, such as mining and creating paint, one loses interest. For me, the link between dust's philosophical and everyday aspects isn't there. If you prefer your documentaries dry and scientific, by all means examine Dust. Otherwise, brush it off. (NR) MEGHAN PETERS Northwest Film Forum: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 5 p.m. Mon., May 26.EpitaphOld Dr. Park (Jeon Mu-song) began his medical career at Anseong Hospital in 1942, when the Japanese occupied Korea. He's relieved, as this K-horror story begins in 1979, that it will soon be torn down. In flashback, the subtle, creepy Epitaph recalls how a young and naive Park (now Jin Goo) first arrives at Anseong, and the strange series of events that follows. Cadavers disappear. An otherwise healthy patient dies of heart failure. One of the doctors doesn't have a shadow (revealed in a neat flashlight sequence). In their directorial debut, the Jeong brothers show they're already masters of ominous dread. Light on gore and low in body count by Saw standards, Epitaph emphasizes lingering psychological disturbances in its three World War II–era chapters. Those disturbances will remain with Dr. Park, and the viewer, even after the hospital ceases to exist. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Egyptian: 11:55 p.m.Everything Is FineTeenage suicide movies work better in Japan, or with the stylish retro sheen of Sofia Coppola. But up in the Rust Belt of Quebec, there's no glamour to four boys offing themselves in high school—which is certainly director Yves Christian Fournier's entire point (he lost four friends to suicide, according to the film's production notes). Everything Is Fine—the title couldn't be more ironic—follows the odd teen out: the victims' best friend, Josh (Maxime Dumontier), who resists every effort by parents and high-school counselors to answer the inevitable "Why?" Unfortunately, Josh's stolid, chain-smoking resistance, interrupted only for sex in the local gravel pit, is tedious to watch. Fournier splits the adolescent sulk-a-thon into several time frames—before, during, and after any number of lethal events. But unscrambling who died when does little to relieve the movie's—and Josh's—chronic self-absorption. The film is most alive during its animated opening credits. And Normand D'Amour, as one victim's father (a dissipated ex-pro golfer), cuts through the torpor with his rage. "Life sucks," he tells Josh. "What do you dumb-asses think?" Would that the movie's other 114 minutes were as direct and effective. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 7 p.m. (Also: 4:15 p.m. Sun., May 25.)Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. ThompsonAs expected, Hunter S. Thompson's 2005 suicide has been trailed by a glut of unauthorized bios and half-baked I-Knew-Hunter memoirs. I've read a lot of them, but Alex Gibney's stylish documentary is the first tribute done right. Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) doesn't bother trying to build myth or expound upon Thompson's personal life—which, of course, Thompson more than took care of during his lifetime. Gibney's doc succeeds because (1) he was given full access to Thompson's archives and the Owl Farm compound; (2) he doesn't drown the film with celebrity interviews; (3) he focuses on Thompson's body of work (not his love of booze and illegal weapons); and (4) he approaches his subject objectively and notlike some raving fanboy. Thompson aficionados will swoon upon hearing the actual conversations Thompson tape-recorded of himself and Oscar Zeta Acosta (aka "Dr. Gonzo") zipping across the desert in search of the American dream, as well as the tapes of him bickering with illustrator Ralph Steadman about attending the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. The film gives equal play to Thompson's achievements and his failures; it veers off course only to follow his late-life cartoonish public persona. His first wife offers a chilling final word: Our current era of fear and loathing could use a voice like Thompson's more than ever. Anyone feel like picking up where he left off? (NR) BRIAN J. BARR Egyptian: 3:45 p.m. (Also: 9 p.m. Mon., May 26.)Hair: Let the Sun Shine InThis pleasantly diverting look at the 1967 "American tribal love-rock musical" offers plenty of vintage clips and talking heads, plus scenes from a recent production, full of fresh-faced kids getting their hippie on, supervised by original book writer James Rado. (Co-author Gerome Ragni died in 1991—very possibly, the footage here suggests, from self-absorption.) But the big question, which this doc does a very inadequate job of answering, is: Why Hair, now, again? There are a few passing plus-ça-change mentions of the Iraq War and the show's continuing relevance, yadda yadda. But no one involved seems quite to grasp that reviving this period piece is the equivalent of Hair-era actors reviving a show from the 1920s—and then running around claiming the timeless message of The Student Prince still speaks to us today. The songs are catchy, even sometimes genuinely beautiful (and we see composer Galt MacDermot has gracefully aged into silver-haired squirehood), but I'd forgotten how many of the lyrics are basically just word lists compiled by thesaurus. The whole thing just seems so...stodgy. When the film's one non-unintentional laugh comes from Johnny Carson, you know the counterculture's dead and buried. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT SIFF Cinema: 1 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Mon., May 26.)Heavy Metal in BaghdadWhen we're introduced to the documentary subjects of HMiB in 2005, their band, Acrassicauda, is the only one of its kind in Iraq. The guys who previously told their story in Vice magazine are excited to be setting up for one of their very few gigs to date. Thanks to the U.S. invasion, it's virtually impossible to facilitate a sweaty mosh pit. For security reasons, the gig is to be in the early afternoon, in a hotel outside the Green Zone, where a power outage soon interrupts the show. Yet, despite the hiccups, it's something of a triumph for a band once forced to sing the praises of Saddam. Primarily enjoyable on an educational level, this well-meaning doc doesn't suggest that Acrassicauda is delusional enough to believe their name will one day be synonymous with Mötley Crüe. Performing, practicing, growing out their hair, and raising their families in peace is all they ask for. (They also ask in English; all speak the language fluently.) By the film's end, they reunite as refugees in Syria, where they follow the freedom of their metal idols—if only by recording a few demos. But it's the scenes back in occupied Baghdad that stay with you. We see enough on the nightly news of shoulder rockets, masked gunmen, and mass graves. But to witness here the difficulty of these 20-somethings to manage simple band tasks—like walking through their neighborhood to rehearse without getting shot or stepping on an IED—somehow makes the larger situation in Iraq seem all the more dire. (NR) CHRIS KORNELIS SIFF Cinema: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sun., May 25.)The Home Song StoriesTony Ayres' Australian immigrant drama is intensely personal and clearly autobiographical. The narrator, a writer, tells you as much in a prologue. His analogue, Tom (the watchful, never cloying Joel Lok), comes to the strange suburbs outside Melbourne in 1964 with an older teen sister and their saloon-singer floozy of a mother (Joan Chen, brave and frazzled). To gain citizenship, this Shanghai chanteuse marries the first Aussie she can find, a naval officer, then dumps the poor chump for a series of men and an ocean of booze. Seven years later, she comes crawling back. Her kids naturally disapprove of her every behavior, and the whole cycle of reproach, tears, and reconciliation repeats itself about 12 times too often. (For variety, there are suicide attempts and trips to the mental ward.) Ayres clearly has aspirations on the order of Wong Kar-wai or Terrence Davies to plumb the period melancholy of families and love affairs that, for all the emotion involved, will never work. The Home Song Stories is acutely remembered and felt, but poorly organized. Tom is bursting with wuxia stage fantasies; meanwhile his sister is discovering David Bowie and attracting notice from one of her mother's young lovers. Ayres is too sensitive to turn this family album into camp or melodrama, but sometimes a little vulgarity helps to clarify those painful memories of youth. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 4 p.m. (Also: 9:15 p.m. Wed., May 28.)A Man's JobErase Deuce Bigalow from your mind. Yes, the unemployed family man at the center of this sober, powerful Finnish drama decides to sell his body for sex. But the laborer, afraid to tell his chronically depressed wife that he was fired months ago, undertakes his freelance profession with a craftsman's pride. Former colleagues from the stone yard set him up with a cell phone, sex toys (in a discreet briefcase), and a Web site. He shaves and changes into a suit only when out of the house. And he treats his clients—mostly older women—with respect, never snickering at their needs or wondering what their husbands, if they have them, can't or won't provide. Tommi Korpela plays Juha with admirable restraint. His services are "no big deal," he tells his best friend (who acts as his IM pimp, too), but he underestimates the emotional nature of what's supposed to be a merely sexual transaction. Some women cry, one turns violent, some just need to talk, and one particular client is unique in a way that may disturb us non-Scandinavian prudes, but probably shouldn't. Director Aleksi Salmenperä relates his story with sparse, well-framed economy: There is a job to do, and a wage to be earned, and a moral cost that must be paid back home. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 11 a.m. (Also: Uptown: 9 p.m. Mon., May 26.)MermaidA prize winner at Sundance, this bubbly, irresistible tale by Russian writer-director Anna Melikyan fuses folklore with her very polished background in advertising. Mostly set in the crass yet alluring present of the moneyed New Russia (brilliantly photographed by Oleg Kirichenko, with seamless digital effects), the story has its origins in the same soulful Slavic myths appropriated by Hans Christian Andersen. Seen first as a girl and later as a teen, Alisa (the luminous misfit Masha Shalaeva) arrives in Moscow to meet her destiny. And if that destiny is a man to love (disheveled ad exec Evgeny Tsyganov), so much the better. Both he and the city are experienced through Alisa's wide-open eyes; you could call the view enchanting, but Mermaid gradually makes clear that she's the enchantress. The green-haired Alisa isn't so much a seeker as a maker of fate. The last foreign movie I saw that percolated with this much life and energy was Amélie. How does one translate "magical realism" into Cyrillic? (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 1:15 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place: 9 p.m. Mon., May 26.)My Effortless BrillianceThere is an exquisite little indie, shot in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, that focuses on the vagaries of male friendship. Unfortunately for Seattle director Lynn Shelton, that film was Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, made near Portland two years ago. My Effortless Brilliance—the title taken from a book by a selfish, insecure writer in this intimate two-hander—suffers greatly by comparison. She traps the novelist (Sean Nelson) and his journalist frenemy (Basil Harris) in a cabin on the east side of the Cascades. Sam Shepard would give them booze and guns and rivalry and father issues. In fact, that would be a play or movie these two literate protagonists would want to see. Or read the short story by Tobias Wolff. (Or even watch the gay porno version on pay-per-view.) But this pair, visited by a laconic local (Calvin Reeder), just ends up stranded in their own inertia. Nothing much happens over the course of their Bukowski-lite weekend, and it happens very slowly. Brilliance means to be a study of mood and male ego, I suppose, but it's mainly an example of how not to write a script (credited to Shelton, Nelson, and Harris). The movie, like Nelson's blocked novelist, has nothing to say, nowhere to go. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Mon., May 26.)The Pope's ToiletComedy and grimness rub together in a way that disconcerts but feels true in this sort-of-based-on-a-true-story fable. Poor folks, small town, big dreams—we've been here before, of course, but in this case the dream of Beto, who scratches out a living biking goods across the border from Brazil to Uruguay, is to build—a pay toilet! The Pope, Juan Pablo II, is visiting Beto's hamlet, and the townspeople, imagining an influx of spectator/tourists in the four—five!—maybe even six!!—figures, are betting all their chips on food stands that will make them a quick fortune. Beto's scheme simply follows his neighbors' to their necessary conclusion. Getting in his way are his stoic but skeptical wife ("What if no one needs to go? If they went before they left?"); a gratuitously nasty sleazeball of a border-patrol guard (sort of a middle-management Anton Chigurh); and his quietly headstrong daughter, who wants to be a radio correspondent. (Journalism as a path up from poverty? Maybe in Uruguay...) (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Pacific Place: 4:30 p.m. (Also: 7 p.m. Tues., May 27.)The Three Little Pigs"Big ears matter more than a big dick," Mathieu informs his brother, Christian, during a tutorial on wooing women. It's the first of many discussions they'll have on the subject in comedian/actor Patrick Huard's charming directorial debut, the story of three brothers with three very different marriages. Mathieu has a nagging wife, two daughters, and a sultry mistress at the office. Christian rarely sees his wife; his sex life consists of porn videos and his left hand. (No surprise that he asks Mathieu's advice about having an affair.) Eldest brother Remi is dismayed and urges them both to salvage their marriages. (This from a man whose most pressing domestic concern is whether to buy his children a puppy.) His younger brothers counter that he has no reason to cheat, but Remi disagrees—there's always a reason, he says, but it's far more rewarding to avoid temptation than to give into it. Pigs navigates issues surrounding infidelity with humor and finesse. And keep your eyes open, for the identity of the dirtiest pig of all remains hidden until the very end. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. (Also: 9:45 p.m. Sun., May 25.)TranssiberianBefore he gets wacked out on ganja in The Wackness (during SIFF's final weekend), Sir Ben Kingsley can be seen as a Russian cop striking terror in the hearts of a naive Bible-belt couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) traveling aboard the titular train in Brad Anderson's wonderfully pulpy Transsiberian—a down-and-dirty homage to locomotive suspense classics like Strangers on a Train and The Narrow Margin. Transsiberian turned out to be a highlight of Sundance's Premieres category this winter. Anderson previously directed the features Happy Accidents and Next Stop, Wonderland. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Uptown: 9:30 p.m. (Also: Egyptian: 1:30 p.m. Mon., May 26.)SUNDAY, MAY 25Fantastic ParasuicidesYim Chun-bong (played by the effervescent Jung Jae-jin) wakes up to a self-scribbled note reminding him it's his 70th birthday. He tidies his apartment, puts on his best clothes, and runs excitedly toward the phone when it rings—but it's only a telemarketer. Such is the everyday set-up for "Happy Birthday," the best segment in this Korean triptych on suicide. (Each story has a different director.) Does that sound like triple the misery? Fantastic Parasuicides is anything but, and its chapters are both provocative and tender as they examine our motives for living. Yes, Chun-bong appears lonesome and forgotten. Then again, we know something he doesn't: the fool's birthday is actually tomorrow. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Harvard Exit: 9 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Mon., May 26.)Head-OnSEE THE WIRE, SUNDAY.The King of Ping PongThe first feature from Sweden's Jens Jonsson, The King of Ping Pong is a coming-of-age film set in icy northern Sweden about a chubby adolescent, Rille, seeking to escape the shadow of his more attractive younger brother, Erik. How? Read the title again. However, don't expect Balls of Fury here. There isn't a ton of Ping-Pong action in this movie, though it does bat comedy and drama back and forth with no clear champion emerging. The two brothers' rivalry turns serious with a "Mommy, who's my real daddy?" plot twist. And both lads must experience that horrible point in every adolescent's life when parents become human. All of which leaves the viewer a bit confused about which emotions to muster, and whether some of the deadpan Swedish humor has been lost in translation. Regardless, it's the actors that make this movie worth watching, with newcomers Jerry Johansson (as Rille) and Hampus Johansson (as Erik) shining especially bright. (NR) SUZIE RUGH SIFF Cinema: 6:45 p.m. (Also: 1:15 p.m. Mon., May 26.)Patti Smith: Dream of LifePatti Smith crashed the '70s disco party with her greasy hair, men's trousers, and unapologetic brashness. Her debut album, Horses, helped jump-start the punk-rock revolution, and Smith soon had a cult following. This documentary offers an intimate portrait of the woman behind the swaggering stage persona. Shot mostly in black and white and narrated by Smith herself, it features over a decade's worth of interviews (with Philip Glass, Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, and others), performances, and telling offstage moments. Director Steven Sebring re-introduces us to Smith as a girl who has a cow-shaped mailbox outside her childhood home and practices her taxi-hailing technique. She pays her respects to poet and muse William Blake by bringing flowers to his grave. She protests war and pees in water bottles. Whether you're a hard-core Smith fan or indifferent to her music, it's easy to appreciate this in-depth and candid tribute to the Godmother of Punk. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Egyptian: 9 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Wed., May 28.)Sexy BeastThis screening follows a 2 p.m. premium event ($25–$200) with Ben Kingsley first talking about his career (which includes an Oscar for Gandhi, among other accolades), showing clips, conducting an audience Q&A, and finally introducing his new Elegy. (In that drama, based on a Philip Roth story, he plays an aging academic who restores his libido with the assistance of Penélope Cruz.) In this enjoyably stylish 2000 heist flick, Kingsley's psycho gangster character, Don Logan, freed him from the halo of his earlier roles and opened up a new career path—see Lucky Number Slevin and, also at SIFF this year, The Wackness. Logan gets what he wants, when he wants, out of sheer intimidation. His bald-shaven head is like a planet emanating an immense, malevolent gravity. Poor Ray Winstone plays the semi-retired robber who succumbs to that cosmic force. If you're lucky, Kingsley may introduce this screening, too. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 6 p.m.Sita Sings the BluesAlt-cartoonist Nina Paley's imaginative, giddily witty, visually delicious animated take on the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic. Sita, wife of Lord Rama and the ultimate paragon of womanly virtue, is abducted by 10-headed king Ravana; in typical blame-the-victim fashion, she spends the rest of her life with her purity in doubt. Paley put together the whole gorgeous thing on her personal computer: Scenes from her own breakup (Paley's husband done her wrong, too) are rendered in jerky pencil sketches, interlaced with the Indian myth told via found art manipulated in an overtly two-dimensional style, kind of like the trippiest South Park episode imaginable. Bollywood is the obvious inspiration for the bold colors and the production numbers, but the music comes mostly from lo-fi '20s recordings by all-but-forgotten chanteuse Annette Hanshaw. Mere irreverence would be too easy—the film's an affectionate and affecting, if often hilarious, telling of a classic tale. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Uptown: 1:30 p.m. (Also: 6:45 p.m. Mon., May 26.)Up the Yangtze"It's hard being a human, but being a common person in China is even more difficult," says one tearful shopkeeper along the soon-to-be-submerged banks of the Yangtze River in Sino-Canadian documentary filmmaker Yung Chang's lucid, beautifully observed portrait of the same incipient flood zone that served as the backdrop for Jia Zhangke's Still Life and its companion documentary, Dong. Whereas Jia turned his attention to the two million zombielike former residents forced to relocate on account of the world's largest hydroelectric-dam project, Chang focuses on the luxury pleasure boats that sail up and down the titular waterway, offering tourists a "farewell" cruise through this ghostly landscape of crumbling buildings painted with water-level markers (150m, 175m, etc.). The ships themselves are hardly less surreal, as elderly cabaret singers rub elbows with young Chinese staffers who have been given American names and instructed in the politesse of dealing with the (mostly) Western clientele. ("Don't talk about monarchies, royal families, Northern Ireland, or the independence of Quebec.") By journey's end, Yung has found in the Yangtze a brilliant natural metaphor for upward mobility in modern China: Whether they hail from the lowlands or the urban centers, everyone here is scrambling to reach higher ground. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Pacific Place: 7:15 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Mon., May 26.)MONDAY, MAY 26Breakfast With ScotEric (Tom Cavanagh) is a deeply closeted sportscaster and ex–Maple Leaf; Sam (Ben Shenkman) is his patient partner. When Sam's brother's girlfriend dies, and the brother can't be located, where is her son Scot going to go? Where, I ask you? Given this schematic premise, this film's charm is that it relaxes as it goes—it loses its high-concept rigidity just as Eric himself stops being so uptight and paranoid about Who Knows, leading to a big, squishy, genuinely moving Christmas-party finale. The agent of both transformations is Scot, who turns out to be a doe-eyed, scarf-wearing, drag-dabbling preteen—the kind of mini-'mo who, trying on a jacket, gleefully squeals, "Oooh, look how it hangs!" Eric's attempt to tone him down and butch him up via peewee hockey fails, sure, but with unexpected results. It's all done with a smart, light touch, with no clichéd villains (you know the sort of thing: "This court hereby decrees that fags are unfit parents"—gavel) and no preaching ("Do you want Scot to grow up living a lie? LIKE YOU?!?"). Noah Bernett plays the high-camp role of Scot without a trace of archness in his acting, making the kid's fey flamboyance the most natural, unself-conscious thing in the world. He's kind of magnificent. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. (Also: Egyptian: 4 p.m. Tues., May 27.)The Greening of SouthieToo much access can be a terrible thing. After their well-received food doc King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis made a case study of green building techniques at a South Boston condo selling "luxury green living." Units range from $500,000 to $2 million, we're told, but there's little other detailed information on what the project cost. Because the developer, architects, contractor, and even laborers are so darn likable, Cheney and Ellis surrender to the enthusiasm for a project whose goals they also clearly share. A few dissenting voices are heard from the insular Irish Catholic community (think Gone Baby Gone), but there's no real debate about gentrification and community displacement. (The one happy buyer who's interviewed looks to be a single gay man.) Slick and well-presented, Greening would initially seem suited to an audience of progressive Seattle architects. But they'd immediately point out what's wrong with the doc: When novel green building materials like wheat-board and bamboo flooring fail and have to be replaced, no one mentions the overages. Did the building pencil out or did it not? Reducing the carbon footprint of residential construction—up to the turning of the key—depends on specifics. This doc just gives us smiling faces and green platitudes, like an infomercial for Dwell magazine. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 6:30 p.m. (Also: Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 27.)TUESDAY, MAY 27MongolNever trust a Mongol with short hair, especially not back in the 12th century. Directed by Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), this sweeping biopic about Genghis Khan presents its hero as a kind of long-tressed amalgam of Putin, Moses, and Obama. He's all about rejecting the politics and divisions of the past. He's a new kind of leader, ready to unify the fractious clans of Central Asia into one nation under a new code of law. (For starters, we will no longer kill women and children; then we invade China.) A bit hard to find underneath that mop of hair, Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays the grown Genghis with bland nobility. Among all the prayer, reform governance, wooing his wife, and playing with the children, how did he find the time for sharpening his sword and chopping off heads? The battles are relatively few and surprisingly far between for a guy with such a bloodthirsty reputation; and the gore is hardly more plentiful than in the LOTR cycle. The grassy steppes of Central Asia are suitably majestic, but Bodrov's leaden history book lurches back and forth without creating a majestic story. Lawrence of Arabia is obviously the template being followed here, but a compelling hero must have oversized—dare we say Clintonesque?—flaws to enliven the historical lessons. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. (Also: Uptown: 4 p.m. Thurs., May 29.)They Killed Sister DorothySEE THE WIRE, TUESDAY.

 
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