SIFF Week 3: Picks & Pans

By Brian Miller and SW Staff

Wednesday, June 34:30 p.m., EgyptianPICK: The Dark HarborDark is right. Friendless, luckless fisherman Manzo lives in a small Japanese village, not really content with his life but too lazy to do much about it. When the town arranges a social for the fishermen to meet some city girls, a clerk takes one look at lumpy, sad-sack Manzo and observes, "A bit past it, aren't you?" Indeed, Manzo (Shinya Kote) looks painfully uncomfortable in anything but his work overalls or favorite blue sweatpants. His idea of a good time is listening to rockabilly music and microwaving corn dogs. (Or in Japan, squid dogs?) Eventually, however, the comic melancholy is interrupted by a home invasion—a cute young kid and his mother take residence in Manzo's house while he's out fishing, then hide in the cupboards at night. And of course Manzo is going to fall in love with Mitsuko, and of course she's not quite what she seems. But since there's so little plot to The Dark Harbor, it's best not to mention any other particulars. The slow-moving deadpan tone recalls Aki Kaurismäki, and Kote's performance suggests a slightly more voluble Buster Keaton. In a rare burst of speech, he confesses, "I'm suffocating here alone." If the interlopers are taking advantage of him, he reasons, it's better than corn dogs for one. SIFFgoers will agree. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 9.6:45 p.m., SIFF CinemaPICK: Kabei—Our MotherThis unpretentious and old-fashioned (that is, crisply legible) domestic drama shows how Rising Sun Japan's sense of national destiny affects one family. Aside from a miscalculated coda, it's set in the years leading up to and immediately after the Emperor's Army declares war on Britain and the U.S. Father "Tobei" (Mitsugoro Bando) is locked up for writing against the ongoing "crusade" in China. In his absence, Mama "Kabei" (Sayuri Yoshinaga) raises their two daughters, the youngest playing the part of Teruyo Nogami, a longtime Kurosawa collaborator, whose memoir was the basis of Kabei—the text periodically interrupts for guided-tour voiceover. Family support comes from an aunt, a sluggard uncle, and a former student, played by Tadanobu Asano, transitioning from comic-relief fop to doomed gravitas. The axis of Kabei is the dining table in the cramped Nogami home; the drama dilutes when perspective shifts to missing loved ones—in prison cells and a torpedoed troop transport—and away from Yoshinaga's emotive eloquence. About the age his young protagonists were during World War II, director Yôji Yamada does get the period's texture on film. Best known for his Tora-san melodrama franchise (40-odd films, 1969–96), old workhorse Yamada delivers the solar-plexus emotional hit of a tragic telegram with precision that shows a lifetime's practice, turning Hallmarkisms sublime. (NR) NICK PINKERTON Also: Kirkland Performance Center, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 4.7:15 p.m., Pacific PlaceArt & CopySince his 1996 grunge rock documentary Hype!, Doug Pray has become an ever more adept assembler of polished images. (See his trucker doc Big Rig, from SIFF '07.) And where else would that tendency lead but the world of advertising? Most filmmakers moonlight in the field, but here Pray trains his camera on the guys behind the ads—the '60s boomer revolutionaries who advanced the field out of the Mad Men era. Hence the famous VW ads from Doyle Dane Bernbach, the groundbreaking art design for Esquire magazine by George Lois, and the use of pop songs (like the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun") by Hal Riney, later the voice of Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign. These guys, their work—it's genius, at least to anyone not offended by art (the image) and copy (the words) designed to sell. Yet however stirring these vintage campaigns and their graying creators may be for ad junkies like me, Pray fails at analysis. His film is simply a tribute. Random statistics—kids see 20,000 TV ads per year; 30 seconds on American Idol costs $750,000—mean nothing without context. And linking the ad biz to cave art (?!?)—well, that's just idiotic. Everyone quoted here, and perhaps Pray himself, wants to be seen as an artist. I wish I had that talent, too. But in this economy, those of us who pay for ordinary dumb stuff may not want to spend extra for that halo. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 1: 15 p.m. Fri., June 5.9:30 p.m., UptownFinal ArrangementsGérard Depardieu? Sign me up! I knew this would be another lame, formulaic French comedy going in, and Final Arrangements proceeds according to expectation. Depardieu is a bohemian metal sculptor of no evident talent, living with his too-sexual wife on a leaky barge on the Seine. His grown son, a 20-something would-be composer (Marc-André Grondin), apparently went to business college. As a result, when the son's film-scoring job goes belly-up, he takes a sales position with an American-run mortuary conglomerate. The shame! In France, capitalism is worse than the whiff of death! The son dare not tell his attorney girlfriend (Bérénice Bejo, from SIFF '06 favorite OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies). And his parents would be even more disapproving if they learned the truth. Depardieu doesn't have much to do with his few scenes here. The picture belongs to the son's mortuary-business rival (Didier Bourdon), an overlooked, provincial mensch who binds the living with the dead. I'll spare you the rest, which isn't worth enduring. For the American remake: Robin Williams as the artist father, Patricia Clarkson as his lusty wife, Justin Long as the embarrassed son (opposite girlfriend Anne Hathaway), and Oliver Platt as Long's coffin-hawking rival. Toss a rose on the grave and you're done. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 11 a.m. Sat., June 6; Admiral, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 11.Thursday, June 44 p.m., EgyptianPICK: SéraphineMartin Provost's lyrical but bracing portrait of early-20th-century French painter Séraphine Louis begins and ends with a quietly ecstatic shot of the artist nestling up to the rustling leaves of a majestic tree. In Provost's vision, the dirt-poor country housekeeper's elemental flower paintings, derided by her bourgeois neighbors, are powered by her love of nature, the direct line she believes she has to the Virgin Mary, and the support of Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German collector whose floors Séraphine scrubs with the same fervor she brings to collecting chicken blood to mix her own brand of red paint. If Séraphine's untutored primitivism is a romance imposed by the filmmaker—in real life, she sat in on art classes for young ladies in Paris—it's a compelling one that seduced an adoring French public and earned the movie seven Césars, including a well-deserved Best Actress award for Yolande Moreau. The actress brings a potent restraint to this beady-eyed, unkempt, and all-but-feral outcast who seethes with inner struggle between strength and appalling vulnerability. Séraphine's dependence on her patron—a cultivated but emotionally detached homosexual, who knew a fellow outsider when he saw one but came and went in her life without warning—is almost as unbearably moving as her inevitable unraveling, when money and fame cut the artist off from her creative wellsprings and drove her over the edge. (NR) ELLA TAYLOR4:30 p.m., SIFF CinemaKatia's SisterA solemn slice of immigrant realism in Amsterdam, Katia's Sister immerses itself in the very limited world of 13-year-old Lucia. The daughter of a Russian street whore, Lucia's main loves are cleaning the family apartment, her pet turtle, and coloring books. That her sexy, blonde older sister, Katia, is likely to follow their mother's path seems a surprise to no one in their household. This is simply what Eastern European women do to survive in the West. And Katia, coke-sniffing sibling role model that she is, is happy to give lap-dancing lessons to the meek Lucia, who nonetheless insists, "I'm not attractive." She's a classic low-self-esteem case, so when she meets an American street evangelist, we fear the worst—that he's actually a trafficker or a pimp, and that the movie might be headed in the direction of Lilya 4-Ever. But director Mijke de Jong sticks to a more mundane reality. In form, Katia's Sister somewhat resembles the work of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, The Promise), but it feels unfinished. It's a coming-of-age picture whose heroine never quite comes of age. She understands sex, but doesn't have to use it. There's no crisis or urgency for this calm, wise child, who doesn't really seem in need of adult wisdom. Considering all the heartache and tumult around Lucia, the movie follows the wrong sister. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Egyptian, 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 9.4:30 p.m., Harvard ExitNo Puedo Vivir Sin Ti"I can't live without you" in Spanish, this Taiwanese exercise in neorealism—there's your third nationality—doesn't quite yank at the heartstrings. Shot in black-and-white video, it dramatizes a real-life Taipei traffic snarl, in which a peasant and his young daughter clung to an overpass above irate rush-hour commuters, who yelled at him to jump so they could get on with their lives. (Something similar happened on the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge recently, but that's another movie.) No Puedo imagines a fictional backstory to that episode: An illiterate day worker in a small port city lives with his daughter in an illegal squat on a pier. He makes his livelihood cleaning hulls and de-fouling props for the ships in the harbor, using a barely safe air compressor that could kill him at any time. Seven-year-old daughter Mei tends the kinked lifeline when Wu-hisung's bosses are too drunk or lazy to pay attention. But when father attempts to enroll daughter in school, the authorities intervene. Where's the mother? Who's the legal guardian? Wu-hisung has no idea how to answer. While striving a bit too hard to be The Bicycle Thief, No Puedo eloquently describes life among Taiwan's poor. It's the flip side to all those Wong Kar-wai pictures that have made Chinese-language cinema so glamorous in the Western imagination. Here on the docks, people are just poor. They can't afford glamour. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Egyptian, 10 p.m. Wed., June 10.4:45 p.m., Pacific PlacePICK: The ShaftAnother depressing Chinese movie about coal miners! And yet I just can't get enough of these pictures set in the furnace, as it were, of China's booming economy. In his debut feature, Zhang Chi divides a family into a triptych of stories, each punctuated by a grim elevator ride down into the clattering mine. First, the sister must weigh her prospects between her present boyfriend, a miner, and a rich cousin living in the city. Next, her layabout younger brother is determined to avoid the mines, but blithely blows off his university entrance exams. "Plans are meaningless to me; being alive is enough," he says, fancying a career as a pop star. Only his father knows how wrong the kid is, and the third episode relates the family's sad history. At 59, he has an ominous cough, even though he's graduated to an above-ground position. With his kids gone, he begins to wonder about the wife who left him years before. He purchases maps to find her home village. Told to search for her on the Internet, he has no idea what that is. He's never been out of his town, it seems, never been free of the coal dust. Unlike his children, unlike the movies of Zia Zhang-ke, there's no awareness of the outside world, no spasms of modernity. Yet as the father inches forward on his quest, his curiosity gives The Shaft a glimmer of hope. He buys a bus ticket, and in the movie's amazing final shot, there's the suggestion that even a miner can change his fate. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 6:30 p.m. Sun., June 14.6:30 p.m., EgyptianPICK: Inju, the Beast in the ShadowBarbet Schroeder delivers a delicious genre movie rooted in Japanese crime fiction. The first 10 minutes are a stand-alone distillation of such books—rich in blood, revenge, and vile villains committing unspeakable acts. After that gruesome treat, we meet smug French crime writer Alex (Benoît Magimel), who fancies himself an expert on the Japanese authors who've influenced him. Traveling to Japan with his new bestseller, he tries to meet a reclusive demon author who's never appeared in public. Naturally the mysterious master resents the usurper, who falls for a lovely tea-house girl (Lika Minamoto) with a mysterious scar on her back and a taste for kinky sex. (Conveniently, she speaks French; though some dialogue's in English, too.) To better understand the sensei's twisted mix of pleasure and pain, Tamao tells Alex, "you need first-hand experience." And this being a film by Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female, Reversal of Fortune), that means S&M, which only draws Alex deeper into his obsessions. This is the kind of movie that openly and enjoyably winks at its conventions, where the know-it-all Alex can declare that his rival has "blurred the line between fiction and reality!" Oh really? By the time Alex reconsiders whose story he's in—well, let's just say that the pen can be a fatal instrument. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Uptown, 1:15 p.m. Sat., June 6; Cinerama, 4:15 p.m. Fri., June 12.7 p.m., Pacific PlaceEverything Strange and New"Now with the economy, our house is worth less than what we owe." Sound familiar? The guy complaining is a Bay Area construction worker (Jerry McDaniel) with a stay-at-home wife (Beth Lisack) and two small boys. Wayne takes the bus to work, where he compares marital woes with his boss and best buddy on the crew. But he also speaks to us in long voiceover passages, often set to street-scene montage, with a rueful self-awareness that removes this odd, unadorned little film from mere naturalism. ("It's not the life we thought we were signing up for when we got married.") Everything Strange is an unaffected chronicle of the slide from middle-class dreams and youthful freedom. Well, unaffected but for one fatal mistake committed by writer-director-cinematographer Frazer Bradshaw, which is to literalize his hero's sense of creeping humiliation with a recurring fantasy motif. It's so bad that I won't describe it, because there's much else to recommend about this debut indie feature. The look, texture, and soundtrack are uncluttered, while Wayne's feelings grow more scrambled. And his buddies' lives turn out to be even more complicated, not so rosy as he thought. The film conveys the intimate sense of reading a diary, and no more consolation than we feel in writing our own. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 1 p.m. Sat., June 6.7 p.m., UptownSwimsuit IssueThis Swedish sports comedy is light and harmless, like a sitcom writ long, like The Full Monty and Susan Boyle's YouTube stardom boiled down to their most generic, middle-aged-underdog essence. The premise is entertaining enough: As part of a bachelor party, a group of men—barely competent weekend-warrior athletes—dress in drag and do synchronized swimming. But what begins as a lark soon becomes a passion, as the group, led by hypercompetitive misfit protagonist Henrik, begins an unlikely mission to compete in the world championships of men's synchronized swimming. Along the way they confront reverse sexual discrimination, homophobia, manscaping, and the balance between friendship and winning. (Also, Henrik must repair his relationship with his teenage daughter, who finds him embarrassing.) There aren't many belly laughs, but Swimsuit Issue is sweet and amusing, if predictable. Finally—lest we shortchange Henrik and the boys—while synchronized swimming starts out as a punch line, it ends up being pretty damn cool. (NR) DAMON AGNOS Also: Admiral, 7 p.m. Sat., June 6; Egyptian, 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 12.9:30 p.m., UptownThe Clone Returns HomeBy virtue of luck or good programming, this Japanese sci-fi picture is like a companion piece to Moon, which also involved cloning and self-alienation. Most of the film takes place on Earth, however, which may be the reason its airless, melancholy spell doesn't last beyond the first 30 minutes. Astronaut Kohei once had a twin brother, we learn in flashback, which makes him—the surviving sibling—doubly precious to his mother. "I won't permit you dying before me," she tells the boy. Years later, following a space accident, you can be sure those words are prophetic. Kohei's corporate employers have made plans for any possible space mishaps, and his wife is told "Your husband will return to you just as he was." But as we all know from software updates, not every new version works as advertised. The company's mad scientist—actually quite gentle as mad scientists go—warns of "scars on the soul" and "memory echoes." These are like bits of bad code in Kohei versions 2.0 and 3.0. The somber conundrum that results, which entails much marching through the Japanese countryside, probably would've worked better as comedy. We could call the remake Too Many Koheis. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Admiral, 4 p.m. Thurs., June 10; Egyptian, 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 13.9:30 p.m., Harvard ExitThe EscapeAfter Roxana Saberi's imprisonment in Iran, this Danish drama about a female journalist's captivity ought to feel topical, but mainly it's just trite. Rikke (Iben Hjejle) is kidnapped by the Taliban while reporting in Afghanistan. Cue the jihadist videos, ransom demands, and threat of beheading. Then, owing to some surprise help from the inside, Rikke escapes, returns to Copenhagen, and writes a best-selling book on her ordeal—arousing jealousy and resentment from some colleagues. Complication one comes in the form of teenage Nazir (Faegh Zamani), the conveniently English-speaking Afghan who aided Rikke's escape. He made her promise not to reveal his assistance, you see, because his fellow Talibs would kill him. But—d'oh!—he intrepidly travels across all Asia and Europe, winding up in a Danish refugee center. If Nazir and Rikke's secret is now spilled, she'd look like a liar and her memoir a hoax. Complication two comes in the form of Rikke's old flame, a married lawyer who might be able to help with Nazir's dilemma. Thanks to the War on Terror, he might be sent to Gitmo as a terrorist. Rikke can't let this happen! Even if it means, yes, destroying her own professional reputation. The Escape falls apart once it escapes Afghanistan, becoming a ludicrous amalgam of journalistic-ethics primer and chase movie (complication one) plus soap opera (complication two). The dialogue's mostly in English (Hjejle, of High Fidelity, is fluent). The plot would be equally obvious in any language. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4 p.m. Fri., June 5.Friday, June 57 p.m., UptownPICK: Against the CurrentJoseph Fiennes, aka "the guy who no one can believe shares DNA with Ralph/hasn't done shit since Shakespeare in Love," delivers an appropriately mysterious performance in this 90-minute rumination on suicide. Fiennes plays Paul, a financial journalist who lost his wife and unborn child to a tragic accident. (No, it's not 9/11.) Five years later, he convinces his best friend Jeff (Justin Kirk), an underachieving Manhattan bartender/actor, to accompany him by boat as he attempts to swim the length of the Hudson River, a scheme they'd hatched as boys. For the hell of it—or, as we later discover, due to her intrigue with Paul—schoolteacher Liz (Elizabeth Reaser) comes along too. While Paul's moral/mortal dilemma here is plenty compelling, the real star is the scenic Hudson River Valley, aided by a haunting score and noble supporting performances. Kirk is the designated mood-lightener who's nonetheless able to shed the sass of his Weeds character to reveal genuine spurts of more melancholy emotion. A Washington native who'll attend SIFF with this film, Kirk has grown by leaps and bounds since he appeared at SIFF '02 in the mediocre thriller Outpatient. (Go rent HBO's Angels in America to see his brilliant turn there.) At 40, he's well on his way to establishing himself as a great character actor, and Against the Current does nothing to diminish such momentum. (NR) MIKE SEELY Also: 11 a.m. Sun., June 7.7 p.m., EgyptianHumpdayThat forlorn indie-cinema movement known as "mumblecore"—whose navel-gazing Gen-Y characters and DIY aesthetics were exalted and derided by a small coterie of film critics before most people had even seen one such movie—showed unexpected signs of life at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. There the dramatic jury awarded a special prize for "excellence in independent cinema" to Seattle director Lynn Shelton's Humpday. An improvised relationship comedy starring Mark Duplass (arguably the Jean-Pierre Léaud of mumblecore) and The Blair Witch Project's Joshua Leonard as two straight friends who decide to go gay for an amateur pornography competition, Humpday is an undeniably amusing enterprise. But why single out for excellence Shelton's meandering meditation on male bonding and amateur filmmaking when it doesn't really bring anything new to a table already occupied by the Duplass brothers' own The Puffy Chair and Baghead, to say nothing of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy? Instead of presenting Shelton with just another bronzed statuette, my own personal jury would have awarded her a tripod instead. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 7.7 p.m., SIFF CinemaThe Missing PersonFor the most abused film genre, I nominate noir. Seriously, give those gumshoes and fedoras and gun molls a rest. Brick was stupid enough. Yet here's another neo-noir—how I hate that phrase—that dresses fresh tragedy in vintage gabardine. Everyone thinks they're Bogart and Bacall. And what, really, is the point? Hats? A mysterious client hires a Chicago private investigator (Michael Shannon, Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road), who shadows a benign-looking bald guy (Frank Wood) escorting a small child via train to L.A., and from thence to Mexico. The P.I.'s main contact is Amy Ryan (Oscar-nominated for Gone Baby Gone), but she's mainly a presence on the phone. Rich people in New York are pulling the strings; and until those strings are knotted at the one-hour point, we've got Shannon puzzling over cell phones and trying to smoke in cabs. He's living in the past, don't you see? And when the reasons for this finally emerge, you'll slap your forehead and say "Oh, jeez! Not another movie about that!" And to writer-director Noah Buschel, I say—leave the detectives alone. Next time try pirates or cowboys. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4 p.m. Sun., June 7.9:30 p.m., EgyptianBlack DynamiteThoroughly silly and enjoyable for film geeks who know the old '70s blaxploitation canon, Black Dynamite suffers from the Grindhouse paradox. As Quentin Tarantino discovered, not everyone outside his immediate circle of friends actually cares that much about lovingly reviving cinematic curios of the past. And Tarantino spent a lot more to achieve his little-seen tribute. Black Dynamite would've worked better as part of a Grindhouse triple bill, and there certainly would've been more dialogue to fill the dead spots. Co-writer and star Michael Jai White treats this material deadpan straight, meaning that he and co-writer/director Scott Sanders recreate the stilted lines, stiff acting, cheap lighting, and leaps of plot logic that plagued the poor sons of Shaft. Grindhouse was expensive cheap; Black Dynamite is cheap cheap. And for those expecting a Zucker/Wayans brothers–style spoof, the gags don't come nearly fast enough. That said, I, a total film geek, giggled all the way through. Though the hugely buff White, as the kung fu–kickin', multiple-lady-lovin' ex-CIA agent Black Dynamite, is no Leslie Nielsen, he has his moments. When a ghetto lovely says that he never flirts or smiles, he responds from beneath clenched jaw and fixed, immobile moustache: "I am smiling." (R) BRIAN MILLER Also: Midnight Sat., June 6.9:30 p.m., SIFF CinemaFour BoxesThe Blair Witch Project meets YouTube. Four Boxes pushes its cleverness one box too far, but it had me thoroughly entertained for the first three. Filmed in voyeuristic, surveillance-camera style, this effective little thriller is well-timed to the mortgage meltdown and foreclosure market. Trevor (Justin Kirk) and junior partner Rob (Sam Rosen) clean out repo properties for the bank, selling the abandoned contents on eBay while they take residence in the vacant homes for a few days. At one such distressed cul de sac property (and we mean really distressed, where two suicides took place), the two find cryptic clues that riches could've been hidden on the premises by the insane former owner. While they hunt, quarrel, and toke up, Rob watches the weirdness on the "Four Boxes" Web site, which bears a certain resemblance to what we in the audience are watching, too. Coincidence? "Not everything is a Stephen King book," insists Rob, whose fiancée (Terryn Westbrook), who happens to be Trevor's ex, joins them on the increasingly paranoid treasure hunt. So there's also a romantic triangle within this Rubik's Cube of a haunted house. First-time filmmakers Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber do get drawn into the abyss of self-reflexive cinema, with snuff films, Hitchcock, and Webcasts swirling in the mix. Four Boxes doesn't earn its conclusion, but it puts a nice technological spin on suburban horror and the fear of the new economy. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 7.12 a.m., EgyptianPICK: GraceHow bad do you want that baby? Do you really, really, really want a child? Birth and horror belong together, dating past Rosemary's Baby and into folklore. But Paul Solet then adds New Age philosophy, veganism, and aggressive feminism to the mix—eliciting laughs and gasps in equal measure. Three strong women are at odds in Grace: pregnant Madeleine (Jordan Ladd), her meddling, baby-crazed mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), and the imperious naturopathic doctor (Samantha Ferris) determined to keep men out of the birthing room. (And out of the bedroom, if you know what I mean.) Against the advice of her male doctors (boo! hiss!) Madeleine carries her high-risk pregnancy to term, calling her miracle baby Grace. And yes, Grace turns out to be something of a problem child. "You don't understand," the mother insists, "She's special! She needs special food!" The mother-in-law and her hired physicians disagree. The naturopath is more sympathetic, but her professional judgment may be clouded by a certain past, ahem, with Madeleine. Surely destined for midnight-movie status and a long life on DVD, Grace should probably be avoided by pregnant women. But for guys about to become fathers, it supplies a valuable message: See, this is what you leave behind. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Pacific Place, 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 6.Saturday, June 611 a.m., EgyptianPICK: Il DivoHard on the heels of the acclaimed Gomorrah, Italian corruption gets a much quieter but equally vigorous workout in Paolo Sorrentino's highly stylized portrait of the country's most enduring political leader, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Teflon doesn't begin to describe the Christian Democrat who led one after another of Italy's rapid succession of administrations and survived a major bribery and corruption investigation, while opponents and former allies dropped mysteriously dead around him. Il Divo plays like an elegantly ritualized black comedy, with Sorrentino deploying every formal tool in his arsenal to disrupt facile interpretations of Andreotti's strategically opaque character. Toni Servillo plays Andreotti with brilliant restraint as a physically disconnected man whose curling ears and still, round-shouldered gait hilariously—and pathetically—recall the desiccated food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille. We learn that Andreotti was a cultured wit with a gift—like this movie—for aphoristic quotation; that he suffered from debilitating headaches; that, in his way, he loved his wife, who loved him back in hers. His solitary nocturnal strolls, surrounded by burly blokes with machine guns, offer one of the movie's few clues to the price he paid for his obsessive lockhold on power. Aside from an imaginary "confession" in which he grows momentarily unhinged, Andreotti remains a properly unknowable monument on his country's shadowy, shady political landscape. (NR) ELLA TAYLOR Also: Cinerama, 9:15 p.m. Sat., June 13.6:30 p.m., Pacific PlacePICK: That Evening SunSet in rural Tennessee, this Hal Holbrook valedictory plays like an unlikely brilliant mixture of Gran Torino, Sexy Beast, and The Straight Story. The 84-year-old Holbrook, best known nowadays for his Mark Twain stage shows, hasn't displayed this sharp a wit in years, if ever. Whereas Clint Eastwood spends Torino uttering uncomfortably hilarious racial slurs, Holbrook's politically incorrect daggers are hurled at the "white trash" family that has unexpectedly come to occupy his ranch. The "his," however, has been cast into doubt by Holbrook's lawyer son, who leased said ranch to said white trash with an option to buy after checking Dad into a horrid nursing home. Escaping from that facility, Holbrook takes a mighty dislike to the undeserving family occupying an estate he worked his whole life to nurture. But what could've been played as a cut-and-dried good-vs.-evil showdown between Holbrook's Abner Meecham and Ray McKinnon's Lonzo Choat ends up as an unexpectedly challenging moral conundrum. It involves issues of class, domestic violence, the decay of rural America, parenting, and treatment of the elderly—and provides no easy answers. If this humble, complex film gets the audience it deserves, Holbrook should instantly rise to the top of Oscar's short list. (NR) MIKE SEELY Also: Admiral, 6:45 p.m. Mon., June 8.6:30 p.m., EgyptianWorld's Greatest DadComedian Bob "Bobcat" Goldthwait was exploring inappropriate humor long before Shakes the Clown or the little-seen Stay (in which a woman confesses to inappropriate sexual contact with her dog). His latest, filmed here in Seattle, begins with a winningly wrong-yet-funny premise. A meek writing teacher (Robin Williams) is single-parenting a horrid teen (the very effective Daryl Sabara), who's rightfully shunned by his schoolmates. But unpublished author Williams has his revenge, of sorts, on both the school and the snobby editors at The New Yorker by penning a bestselling fake memoir in his son's name. Formerly a failed writer, he gives society exactly the sort of pabulum it wants to hear, in the process turning his misfit son into an unlikely role model. Suddenly it's hip, or so the teens slavishly believe, to dig Emily Dickinson and Bruce Hornsby—anything to be like Williams' son (or so he tells them). Naturally this lie spins out of control; and so, too, does Dad's dark satire in its meandering third act. Williams' book becomes the means to regain his ex-girlfriend, and it also draws a Hollywood swarm of agents and parasites. This shy milquetoast, perhaps like Goldthwait himself, is disgusted by the showbiz hype he triggers. For that reason, the laughs are strongest within the confines of school and family—it's very much Tom Perrotta territory, only with the Goldthwait twist. (R) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4 p.m. Sun., June 7.7 p.m., Harvard ExitPICK: At West of PlutoMaybe I'm over-conditioned by The Office and all those Christopher Guest mockumentaries to find deadpan humor everywhere, but I thought a lot of this very cinema-vérité film about francophone high-schoolers in Quebec—maybe more than intended?—was pretty funny. (Two guys, discussing names for their band, suggest Never Break My Nose and Microwave Distortion; assigned in class to give an expository speech about his passion, one kid chooses peanut butter.) It's not a documentary, but it looks like one, mainly because nothing in the lives of these middle-class kids is exaggerated. They're bored and alienated, but not melodramatically so. The few adults depicted are not clueless and malignant. No one's implausibly beautiful (actual acne and unfortunate mid-pubescent attempts at facial hair can be seen). And, though genuinely moving, the dramatic incidents are merely the sort of things dumb under-entertained kids do, not jolting bloodbaths. The camera just follows around a dozen or so characters, from a day at school to a parents-out-of-town, beer-and-make-out party that gets out of control. It's believable—except for the absolute absence of cell phones; what year is this?—and compelling every second. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 7.7:15 p.m., SIFF CinemaLittle JoeA fond—albeit dull—oral history of Joe Dallesandro, directed by a young woman he helped raise. The star of many of the films to come out of Andy Warhol's factory (Flesh, Trash, et al.) was justly famous for his beauty. As portrayed in the documentary, Dallesandro's unique contribution to our understanding of Warhol's art may be, "I kept asking Paul [Morrissey, Warhol's director], 'Why do I need to take my clothes off in this scene?'" JONATHAN KAUFFMAN Also: 4 p.m. Sun., June 7.Sunday, June 71:15 p.m., UptownPICK: Market—A Tale of TradeNobody has a cell phone yet, but in the mid-'90s, a hustling street merchant in the Turkish shadow economy realizes there will be fortunes to be made from the device. Only problem is, he has no capital to buy a government license. Then, as if in answer to his prayers at the mosque, this gambling, hard-drinking, rarely-at-home husband and father receives a windfall. Thieves have stolen a supply of medicine needed by the local hospital, which hands Mihram (the sly, soulful Tayanç Ayaydin) a wad of cash to drive to Azerbaijan for the medicine and smuggle it back home. So: Here's a chance for the small-time hustler to do good, to turn over a new leaf. Or he could misuse the money for his cell-phone scheme. Or, and this is where The Market becomes morally compelling, he could try to do both. Aided by a woeful old uncle in Azerbaijan, Mihram barters his stake, fools border guards, and humiliates a gangster in a high-stakes card game. Then he, the consummate haggler, marches into a medical clinic like a gunslinger. "There's always a price," he tells his uncle. But in this parable of globalization, where petty smugglers are connected to international markets, Mihram ultimately discovers that he has his price, too. And it's being set far above his head. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 7 p.m. Tues., June 9.6:30 p.m., Kirkland Performance CenterBe Calm and Count to SevenIranian cinema means slow and philosophical—Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and company, right? The first 10 minutes of this seaside smuggler dramedy are anything but. Speedboats zoom out to grab illicit goods, then race back to shore. Parcels are delivered to children and ululating burka-covered women who run down shoulder-width alleys with the police (underpaid peasants themselves) in hot pursuit. A handheld camera trails after the frantic chase, which is both exciting and strange. Later we learn that at the middle of the black-market pyramid is a somber smuggler from Tehran, which seems a million years distant from the empty, tacky chateau he's built by the shore. (His wife and family are back in the city.) One fatherless beach kid wins his favor, becoming an errand boy on his larcenous errands. It's cat-and-mouse with the weary young cops, one of whom has designs on the errand boy's older sister. There's enough plot here for a dozen crime flicks, but writer-director Ramtin Lavafipour sticks to his odd, obstinate storytelling rhythm—alternating bits of observational comedy, a seed-spitting contest, boat chases, ice cream at the mall, and a proverb about drowned souls being saved by watering trees on land. There's no big heist, no final resolution, only the sadness of waiting for deliverance from the sea. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Pacific Place, 7:15 p.m. Wed., June 10.9:15 p.m., SIFF CinemaHookedLove the story, not the technique. From Romania, this tightly concentrated three-hander strongly recalls Roman Polanski's breakthrough, Knife in the Water, for its economy and psychological suspense. Schlubby teacher Mihai drives his girlfriend out to the country for a picnic. Their relationship isn't going well, and things get worse when their car knocks down a roadside hooker. (The going rate in the impoverished countryside is equal to a glass of beer.) Fearing she's dead, the quarrelsome lovers hide the body and prepare to bury her. But—spoiler!—she's not dead. Instead, the chatty, irrepressible, and possibly insane trollop (bubbly Maria Dinulescu) insinuates her way into the picnic, which the two guilty parties (Adrian Titieni and Ioana Flora) feel incapable of refusing her. What does Ana—if that's her name?—really want? Probing for personal information at every turn, she could be a psycho prosti or a benevolent wood sprite. We have no idea. Equally confounded, the two city dwellers are caught in her spell. "Our meeting was no accident," she insists. The bad news: In his first feature, writer-director Adrian Sitaru shot the entire thing POV, like the old curio Lady in the Lake. Which means our perspective whipsaws back and forth among the three performers. Headache guaranteed. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Admiral, 4:30 p.m. Tues., June 9.9:30 p.m., EgyptianFruit FlyA patter-song salute to San Francisco's public-transit systems, the opening number of H.P. Mendoza's musical is clever enough to raise hopes, but his jingly, synth-driven songs—including two about the joys of being a fag hag—get more embarrassing from there. Mendoza also wrote and directed this tale of young, mostly gay or lesbian artists sharing a Castro house. But then he couldn't resist casting his friends, or so I'm guessing, including himself in the role of Mark. The result is some of the most leaden and unconvincing line readings you'll see on a movie screen this year. The central character, Bethesda, is an adopted Filipino-American performance artist searching both for her roots and for a theater to stage her new piece about searching for her roots—the film's two plot lines, both dropped unresolved for the closing numbers. Bethesda is turned down by the first theater she applies to, and then poutingly gives up because apparently there's only one performance venue in San Francisco. (Not a big arts town, you know.) Lazy self-reference sinks the script; one character delivers a monologue about how lame monologues are. Sorry to be a bitch, because I'm sure everyone involved in Fruit Fly is a perfectly nice person, laudably earnest and not untalented, but this is what happens when the dictum "write what you know" becomes self-indulgence. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT Also: SIFF Cinema, 4:30 p.m. Tues., June 9.Monday, June 87 p.m., Harvard ExitCold SoulsLet's get this out of the way first: Yes, it's just like a Charlie Kaufman premise, but it's not a Charlie Kaufman movie. Instead, in Sophie Barthes' not-so-comic comedy, Paul Giamatti plays a tortured New York actor named Paul, one famous enough to be noticed on the street, who's starring in Uncle Vanya on Broadway. We see him in multiple rehearsals in the title role, and these scenes are a treat: a real stage actor bringing wildly different emphases to the part, which both astonishes and dismays his co-stars and director. I say wildly different because Paul swaps souls at least twice during rehearsals. There's a medical device at an unlicensed clinic on Roosevelt Island that allows him first to rid himself of the old, tortured Paul; then, since empty, soulless Paul doesn't work, he borrows a Russian soul (this being Chekhov and all). And somewhere in the process, international soul smuggler Nina (Dina Korzun) somehow misplaces Paul's soul. But after transporting it inside her back to St. Petersburg, she falls in love with him a little. (Movie Paul is married to Emily Watson; not so in real life.) Are you with me so far? Barthes is a French writer-director, and this is her first feature. And it's no great criticism to say that her ideas, well, they get away from her. Giamatti, being Giamatti, is wonderful. Meanwhile the exquisite Korzun (Last Resort, Forty Shades of Blue) is left to walk the shore at Coney Island and stare mournfully out windows. She's been contaminated by carrying the souls of so many, so briefly, and has lost her own. So if it's madcap meta-comedy you want, this is not your movie. But as it delves into melancholy hotels, forlorn Slavic orphanages, and the likely impossibility of happiness, Cold Souls is relatively lighthearted. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4:30 p.m. Wed., June 10.7 p.m., Egyptian(500) Days of SummerCan there be a thing as too much cute? This is the dilemma for Summer (also the name of Zooey Deschanel's scary-adorable character), which plunges us with twee abandon into a relationship gone bad. The comedy unfolds entirely from the perspective of Tom (the winningly bewildered Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who tries to figure out why the girl of his dreams has dumped him. His inquest is aided by two wacky pals, his preciously wise preteen sister, a basso-voiced NFL-style narrator, and the movie's date-clicker device, which spins us (and Tom) back and forth during his 500-day period of romance-and-recovery. It's all a bit much. I laughed consistently, but the quality of those laughs wears thin. The movie is so closely edited, so proud of its wit, that it's like an entire season of Friends packed into 96 minutes. Moreover, Tom must be a sweater vest–and-tie-wearing kind of a guy, who writes copy for a greeting-card company. This means that his Summer crisis must also result in a professional crisis. He must rediscover the artist (well, architect) within! The movie's in no way bad; it's just trying way too hard, frequently slipping from funny to glib and back within the same scene. And the leads are both charmers. It's not their fault that the movie—set for July 17 release, when it deserves to be a minor hit—often feels like an indie-sitcom pilot. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4:30 p.m. Tues., June 9.7 p.m., SIFF CinemaPICK: The Red RaceThis is the best sports documentary to play SIFF since The Heart of the Game, one of the best I've seen in a decade. Granted unbelievable access by a Shanghai gymnastics academy (which likely thought the doc would boost its reputation), director Gan Chao follows several young children through their grueling workouts, schooling, and home life. We've read about the fishy birth certificates China used for its gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics, but what we see here is an intensely competitive and unforgiving feeder system that molds medal winners at a very young age. Their parents are poor, peasants displaced from the countryside, and their families aren't always intact. Making each selection at the academy, scoring well in meets, and then possibly reaching the national team is a matter of economic advancement not just for the tiny athletes but for their kin too. For this reason, we can understand why so few of them cry or complain about the incessant work and stern coaches—one of whom scolds a kid, "Is crying useful? Can you win first place by crying?" Yet these coaches aren't monsters, and the academy isn't exactly child abuse. Everyone knows the stakes involved, even the children (or they soon learn). There is a single, static shot in this movie, perhaps 60 seconds long, that contains more drama than anything I've seen on film this year: two girls, aged about 8, in a contest to see who can hang longest from a bar. It's excruciating to watch, because—as both girls know—the one who releases her grip first may drop farther than the floor. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 4:30 p.m. Thurs., June 11.9:30 p.m., Harvard ExitPICK: The One-Handed TrickLike a cross between Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy and Christy Brown in My Left Foot, "Cuajo" (slang for tadpole) is a scrawny, touchy gimp who won't let disability stand in the way of his dreams. In a poor section of Barcelona, he wants to be a rapper, to build his own recording studio where he and his best friend Adolfo can make music, never mind that he has cerebral palsy. Bathing and walking are a struggle, yet perhaps for this reason he's the most enterprising hustler in the 'hood. While most others around him, including Adolfo, struggle with drugs, Cuajo is ceaselessly working. The movie has all the same urgency, speeding through its simple, familiar story with convincing detail. This is the new polyglot Europe, where Arabs and African immigrants (including Adolfo's father) live cramped together in public housing. A slo-mo wedding scene combines traditional Catalan dancing and hip-hop. Yet even as our two heroes seem on the verge of success, their families are mired in the old culture of despair. Failure and anger spread as if by virus from one generation to the next, giving the film a bleak, realistic tone. As Cuajo, rapper Juan Manuel "El Langui" Montillo gives a fierce, unsentimental performance. Confidently firing rapid-fire rhymes into the microphone, he's utterly his own man, one who doesn't need anyone else's help or pity. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: SIFF Cinema, 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 13.Tuesday, June 94:30 p.m., Harvard ExitPoppy ShakespeareThere are two wonderful things about this film, which has aptly been described as a British take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Those things—actors, actually—are Naomie Harris and Anna Maxwell Martin, who brilliantly portray a pair of friendly mental-ward patients whose objectives for treatment are at odds. But other than Harris and Martin, there's nary an individual in the nuthouse who resonates—not even one little bit. This sort of character development was a strength of Cuckoo's, which structured its supporting players as a band of brothers under Jack Nicholson's command. In Poppy, these same patients come off as a random band of jabbering loons, to the point where we want to see them locked in solitary and removed from the screen. Then there's the title, named for the character played by Harris (28 Days Later and Pirates of the Caribbean). Poppy Shakespeare? That's just fucking stupid. And what is it with British cinema's inability to match music with mood? As in the vastly overrated Peter O'Toole vehicle Venus, spritely, ambient chick pop is most definitely not the right score for this film. To top it all off, the big reveal of this film—no spoilers—is pretty ridiculous, especially to American audiences unfamiliar with the British mental-health system. As for whatever statement about that system this film is trying to make—poppycock is more like it. (NR) MIKE SEELY Also: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 14.7 p.m., UptownDefamationIt's hardly news that manufactured outrage, whether from the left or the right, is a valuable fundraising tool. Gun control, abortion rights, global warming—any political cause can be converted into an ATM. Still, that doesn't stop Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir from assuming a faux-naive tone to follow the Anti-Defamation League and its controversial New York leader, Abe Foxman. Should we be surprised to learn that there's a whole "never forget" industry and curriculum, that there are school group tours to Auschwitz, and that, so far as hate speech impacts the ADL, "an increase sells!" (as Shamir puts it)? Not really. And Shamir's man-on-the-streets interviews in Brooklyn, where African-American tensions with the Orthodox community led to the 1991 Crown Heights riot, are shameful setups. Brothers hanging out on the corner in the middle of a workday aren't representative of the black community. Nor does Foxman—not treated like a complete buffoon—speak for all Jews. Defamation is mostly inside baseball—this faction versus that faction, American Jews are more touchy than their European counterparts, and so forth. Not a single Arab voice is heard. Then there's the pariah historian Norman Finkelstein, who calls the right-wing invocation of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism "a pretext or excuse to humiliate, degrade, or torture the Palestinians. The suffering comes in a package. Here is the suffering, now we take your land." Little in Defamation is expressed so plainly. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: Harvard Exit, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 11.7 p.m., Harvard ExitStory of JenThis is why I'm glad Lolita is only a novel. Fifteen-year-old Jen's father commits suicide, and his half-brother, Ian, moves in with widow and daughter in rural Quebec. And for nearly two hours (wrenchingly directed by Francois Rotger), we're shown just how damaged everyone is. Finally, Jen (the doe-eyed Laurence Leboeuf) gets a little too close (hint hint) to her too-doting uncle, in a nonconsensual kind of way (hint hint hint). A Dangerous Game–style manhunt then follows, leading to a scene that could've sprung from the mind of Cremaster creator Matthew Barney. But Rotger is no Barney (nor Nabokov, for that matter), and though our heart breaks for Jen, Story of Jen is more powerful than artful. Jen's suffering just goes on and on and on. During the movie's nearly two-hour run time, I found myself thinking that I could've watched the new Wallace & Gromit short four times instead. (NR) LAURA ONSTOT Also: 4:30 p.m. Thurs., June 11.9:30 p.m., Pacific PlaceEl GeneralMemoirs by the grown children of dictators and disgraced politicians are only going to be fun or interesting if published, or filmed, close to the events at hand. Natalia Almada's documentary is three generations removed from her great grandfather, a Mexican revolutionary and strongman who ruled that country in the '20s and '30s. Beyond still photographs and some evocative home movies, her primary source is her dead grandmother, who left extensive audiotapes for a book of her own (never written, and which Almada is in a sense completing with this film). For students of Mexican history, this will be interesting. For the rest of us, Almada tries to provide topicality with man-on-the-street interviews about Mexico's ongoing social inequity. ("We're still fighting for the same thing.") It's video padding on a project that lacks outside sources and any clear editorial voice on Almada's part. The film needs a strong guiding hand, such as El General himself might've provided. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: SIFF Cinema, 11 a.m. Sun., June 14.9:30 p.m., UptownSummerI was hoping, after I Know You Know, that Robert Carlyle was coming to SIFF this year. If not, after Summer, I can't say his absence will be a great disappointment. He does his best playing Shaun, the mid-40s caretaker of his childhood best friend, Daz, left paraplegic after an accident that Summer, among its many flashbacks, will inevitably reveal. There are three sets of Shaun and Daz actors, and all speak with the same thick regional accents that make the emotionally affecting Summer, to us, somewhat impenetrable. (Subtitles? Hello?) The movie is set in the East Midlands. But really, what does that mean to us American SIFFgoers? Are these Midlands worse than the North or South or West Midlands? It's all the same rural proletarian misery, whether in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. Summer is but a minor variation on that theme. Young Shaun was dyslexic, we learn, and fell in love with the smart, beautiful Katy (ultimately Australian actress Rachael Blake), before tragic events tore them apart. The movie's dramatic crux lies in Thatcher's deregulated '80s, when England's youth either did or didn't make the cut to university education and a free-market economy. Two decades later, neither Shaun nor Katy seems happy with what side they're on. Yet England—wherever the East Midlands may be located—soldiers on. And as ever, Carlyle gives his side a bruised, tender dignity. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Also: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 14.See www.seattleweekly.com/siff for more new reviews daily.

 
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