SIFF Week 4: 15 New Picks & Pans

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 97 p.m., SIFF CinemaMonogamyAs his feature debut, writer/director Dana Adam Shapiro, whose 2005 Murderball received an Oscar nomination for best documentary, brings to the screen a languorous, intensely personal film about a boho, bearded Brooklyn 30-something's marital cold feet. When photographer Theo's folk-singer fiancée lands in the hospital with a staph infection three months before they're to wed, he all but abandons her to embark upon a Pabst-fueled introspection bender. The leads are played strongly by Chris Messina (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Greenberg) and Rashida Jones (Parks & Recreation, I Love You, Man); the sad-bastard soundtrack strikes just the right chords; and the drama is unflinchingly authentic in its dialogue and urban aesthetic. But at times that authenticity threatens to grind to a halt what is, by design, a slow film, and Shapiro doesn't provide enough insight into his characters' backgrounds to raise them beyond fuzzily sketched archetypes. Still, Monogamy is memorable for its emotional honesty. Shapiro's clearly been there, and Messina's performance is all the sturdier as a result. (NR) MIKE SEELY (Also: 4 p.m. Thurs., June 10.) THURSDAY, JUNE 104 p.m., NeptuneWilliam S. Burroughs: A Man WithinAlong with Howl (see below), this film celebrates the Beat era, but from a very conventional documentary approach. It's narrated by Peter Weller, who starred in the 1991 adaptation of Burroughs' Naked Lunch. And, sorry to say, that film was a lot more fun than this dreary procession of film clips and talking heads. We're treated to all the usual encomiums from Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Laurie Anderson, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and company. But, really, what's the point? What more do we need to know about the late gay junkie WASP (1914–1997) that his own Junkie and public persona didn't communicate better? He was famous for a half-century, perhaps the most recognized gay icon of the pre-Stonewall era. And he dined on that image for decades, helped codify it with cameos as in Drugstore Cowboy. A Man Within merely adds more cement to the pedestal that Burroughs built for himself. "Do you want to be loved?" Allen Ginsberg asks in one clip. Burroughs' comeback is delivered with dry comic timing already perfected before the cameras: "By my cats, certainly." (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Harvard Exit, 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 12.)6:30 p.m., SIFF CinemaAmerican: The Bill Hicks StoryIt's probably inevitable that a biopic will be made about comic Bill Hicks (1961–1994), who achieved his greatest success shortly before cancer killed him. One wonders, however, how this caustic, skeptical Texan would've felt about his posthumous veneration. American, made by British directors Matt Harlock andPaul Thomas, gets uncomfortably close to hagiography. And Hicks was no saint. There's a cult around the performer, one that casts him as the only truth-to-power champion of the late Cold War era, as though he alone stood between Reagan and fascism. Naturally all his friends say Hicks was a genius; and testimonials from his family are moving. But American is most interesting when it doesn't argue for Hicks' profundity. Re-enactments and animated passages illustrate his early life; old family snapshots are rotoscoped, as in The Kid Stays in the Picture, to show how the teenager snuck out his bedroom window and onto Houston comedy stages. (Actual clips show a remarkably self-assured young artist.) Made with full family cooperation, American is candid about Hicks' L.A. burnout, drug abuse, and alcoholism, though more veiled about girlfriends who endured such behavior (none are interviewed). And his early '90s tirades about the Branch Davidian siege are tinged with Tea Party anger. He was ahead of his time in more ways than one. But take away the politics and outrage, and there's much laughter and delight here. My favorite bit is Hicks enacting the Shane shootout between Jack Palance and Elisha Cook Jr.: He's pure evil and pure innocence and purely convincing as both. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., June 12.)7 p.m., Pacific PlaceCrossing HennessyAt 41, dopey Loy (Jacky Cheung) still can't get out of bed by himself in the morning—he lives with his aunt, who cooks and cleans for him, and works at the family's appliance store. Loy's mother (the astoundingly shrewish Paw Hee-Ching) sets him up with Oi-Lin (Lust, Caution's Tang Wei), the pretty niece of some customers. Problem is, Oi-Lin already has a boyfriend—Xu, who's in prison for battery and assault—and Loy is still hung up on his childhood sweetheart, a glamorous and recently divorced photographer. The two do, of course, end up falling for each other (they share a love of murder-mystery novels, for one thing). The lighthearted film has a number of charming, if not entirely original, moments. (Cue the rain machine as Loy runs in slo-mo toward his beloved.) But Crossing Hennessy—a remake of the 1988 rom-Jew-com Crossing Delancey—relies too much on stereotypes of Asian culture. The girl trying to resist an arranged marriage, OK. The late-blooming bachelor, fine. But Loy's shrill, overbearing mother is such a terror that the character is borderline unwatchable. As a bribe, she buys Oi-Lin's family dim sum and gives them a free humidifier. And if that doesn't work, she has an ultra-dramatic heart failure. For the sake of Loy and Oi-Lin, I found myself wishing worse consequences upon her. (NR) ERIN K. THOMPSON (Also: 1:30 p.m. Fri., June 11.)7 p.m., UptownPatagoniaFor the title alone, many will flock to see this diptych drama, filmed on the Argentine side of the Andes and in Wales. Yes, Wales. Patagonia is a partly state-funded film in Welsh, English, and Spanish; the two locales and three languages make it a very scattered yet very predictable affair. One story concerns a Welsh couple, not married but trying for children, who visit Patagonia on a photo assignment. In the other, a grandmother descended from Welsh settlers takes her grandson back to the homeland where she was conceived but has never visited. Patagonia cuts back and forth between these two journeys, but fails to establish the necessity of such linkage. (Other than: If Wales put up some money, you damn well better film there.) The infertile couple's bickering and tensions are obvious; and the grandmother's fate is never in doubt. Of more interest are the two contrasting landscapes. Green, hilly Wales was apparently too inhospitable in 1865 for the poor tenant farmers and colliers who first sailed to Patagonia. And there today, where old Welsh settlements are a tourist attraction, the windswept land is arid and unforgiving. It seems such an unlikely migration that you want to know more of that history and the hardships that followed. Somewhere in Patagonia, there's a good documentary trying to escape. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 3:45 p.m. Sat., June 12.)9:30 p.m., SIFF CinemaThe Sentimental Engine SlayerWe meet inexperienced Barlam (Omar Rodríguez-López) fumbling around with a prostitute in a seedy motel room. It's a dark and heavily depressing scene—which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Barlam's friends mercilessly tease him about his antisocial tendencies. He works in a grocery store and assembles toy models of '67 Mercurys in his spare time; he lives with his sister Natalia (Tatiana Velazquez) and her boyfriend, who frequently wets the bed and plays video games in his dirty underwear. Sometimes Natalia ends up in Barlam's bed; they have a vaguely inappropriate physical relationship that heats him up to no end. Rodríguez-López is also the director, though he's best known as lead guitarist for the psychedelic rock group The Mars Volta. Sentimental is his first film, and it shows—not in a good way. The herky-jerky non-chronological order of scenes is disorienting. Also frustrating is the huge volume of background noise—radios, air conditioners—that drown out the dialogue. By the time we get to corpses being dismembered in bathtubs and cross-dressers being bashed with crucifixes, you won't be listening anyway. You'll breathe a sigh of relief once the film finally concludes—if you make it that far. (NR) ERIN K. THOMPSON (Also: 4 p.m. Fri., June 11.)FRIDAY, JUNE 117 p.m., UptownMicmacsAn exploded grandfather clock of a movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's intricately antic Micmacs hurls gears, gizmos, and other trash-heap objets d'art at the audience. It's aggressively, whimsically retro, like a heaping second helping of Delicatessen. Instead of the enchanted fairyland of his smash hit Amélie, Jeunet burrows into the Parisian scrap-yard lair of the Micmacs, a band of outcasts without superpowers but ingenious uses for old junk. Movie-quoting video store clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) joins them after a nasty encounter with a bullet; that, plus his father's prior landmine mishap, has him vowing revenge on two rival arms manufacturers. Quicker than you can say Yojimbo, the Micmacs spring into action. Contortionist, mathematician, human cannonball (Dominique Pinon)—the team embodies Jeunet's love of the handmade and the improvised, which are pitted against the cold technology of the munitioners. Magnets, alarm clocks, lengths of string, and jars of wasps are the Micmacs' preferred weaponry. (Though, in a concession to our times, Jeunet does allow for YouTube.) Allusions are made to recent European arms deals in the Balkans and Afghanistan, but the satire could just as equally apply to the '20s, when Chaplin's dinner rolls danced on fork-legs. Micmacs is more fantasia than violent revenge tale. And its pleasing curlicues—like a bouquet of spoons—linger long after the predictable outcome. (R) BRIAN MILLER 7 p.m., Harvard ExitParis ReturnA loving portrait by Israeli filmmaker Yossi Aviram of his gay, septuagenarian uncle in France, this documentary quietly celebrates domestic partnerships and Paris, respectively. But don't expect anything more than that. We simply get to know grumpy old Reoven Vardi, who moved from Israel to France during the '50s; there he met Italian immigrant Pierluigi Rotili, and the two opened an architectural practice successful enough to earn them a rooftop duplex overlooking the Louvre. (As real-estate porn, the film functions nicely.) Reoven and Pierluigi, separated by about a decade in age, are loving but not particularly interesting. Reoven has health problems and talks of moving back to Israel to die. "Most of our friends are dead," he observes. The livelier, more optimistic Pierluigi wants to stay; and they debate selling off some furniture and old clothes. The movie will seem familiar to families of any variety who've been through the same grim, inevitable process of downsizing, decluttering, and will-writing. Doctors are consulted, favorite haunts and cafes visited, and the two visit Tel Aviv to walk the beach at sunset. "Can you say something sentimental?" Pierluigi playfully asks. "No," says Reoven. It's a problem his nephew never surmounts. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 13.)7 p.m., Pacific Science CenterThe Wildest DreamEverest looks suitably majestic in this IMAX documentary, though five different expeditions on the peak are awkwardly cobbled into one dubious narrative. At issue is whether, in 1924, George Mallory and his rope-mate reached the summit 30 years before Edmund Hillary. Mallory's body was discovered in 1999 by American climber Conrad Anker, which prompted much media speculation and new books on the subject. In 2007, Anker went back to test the hypothesis—i.e., sell more books and movies—that Mallory might've been able to free climb the "Second Step" on Everest's north side (a section today scaled using an aluminum ladder). In addition to the many stills, old newsreels, and passages read from Mallory's loving correspondence with his wife, Anker and his English rope-mate briefly don (recreated) '20s climbing attire—to see, presumably, if Mallory could've survived in the Death Zone. But it's mainly part of the restaged period farce: a costume show about two figures in tweed, filmed in sepia IMAX format, while we listen to the epistolary drama. "There's no dream that mustn't be dared," says Mallory. But the voice is actually Ralph Fiennes'; Liam Neeson is our narrator; and in an unintentionally morbid touch, Neeson's late wife Natasha Richardson reads the letters from Ruth Mallory. The photography is stunning, of course, but the historical conjecture and Everest CSI vibe are less impressive. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 12.)9:15 p.m., Harvard ExitThis Way of LifeUnexpectedly beautiful and sad, this documentary follows a divided New Zealand family over four years. Becoming homeless and estranged from their elders sounds terribly depressing, but Peter and Colleen Karena prove to be remarkable young parents. (Their kids eventually number six; the eldest boy narrates the film.) Initially living like hippie survivalists in a gorgeous valley on the North Island of New Zealand, they raise horses and hunt game in the hills. The kids enjoy a natural, glorious proximity to nature, though city parents may gasp at the sight of a 3-year-old standing serenely on a horse's back, six feet off the ground. But it's economic danger that presses closest: Peter rents their homestead from his disapproving stepfather, and eventually the family is forced from their land. Photographed and directed by Tom Burstyn, This Way of Life is a triumph of access and image; it sympathizes entirely with the Karena family and mostly excludes the outside world. (Is Peter's stepfather really such a monster? He never gets to defend himself.) Living like gypsies, riding horses on the beach, swimming naked in rivers—it's like an idyllic cross between the photos of Sally Mann and the wild equestrianism of White Mane. If he hadn't gone mad, it's the life and family Ted Kaczynski would've wanted. While you can never quite trust the degree to which Burstyn idealizes the Karenas' way of life, neither can you forget it. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 3:45 p.m. Sun., June 13.)9:30 p.m., Pacific PlaceEvery Day Is a HolidayDon't mistake this for a realistic drama of life in the Middle East. Forget about relating its plot to the latest doings of Israel, Hamas, or Hezbollah. Rather, Dima El-Horr's debut feature owes more to Franz Kafka and Jacques Tati. Three women—including Hiam Abbas (Lemon Tree, Amreeka, The Visitor)—are journeying on the same bus from Beirut to a men's prison somewhere in the desert. One wants a divorce. The second, who doesn't even speak Arabic, is looking for her new husband. The third (Abbas) carries a gun in her purse; and it will be fired. En route, conversing mostly in French, the three strangers encounter refugees, snipers, chickens, kidnappers, rumors, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences. Manless, they have only themselves to rely on. With a twangy guitar score and arid landscape that suggest spaghetti Westerns, their journey becomes increasingly abstracted from character. You could call their archetypes innocence, experience, and bitterness. But even the youngest, a recent bride, bemoans "this land where only nightmares bloom." When these three stranded travelers manage to thumb a ride, it's with a funeral procession. Every Day is plainly meant to be an allegory of some sort, but however deeply El-Horr may despair of her homeland, her movie only makes Lebanon more opaque and confounding. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 11 a.m. Sun., June 13.)9:30 p.m., UptownRocksteady: The Roots of ReggaeThis is not a film about Bob Marley. No, the documentary doesn't ignore Jamaica's biggest export. And yes, Rita Marley takes a moment to recite a few words from "No Woman No Cry" in Trenchtown in the room where she and her late husband first had sex (a kitchen). But while this could've been just another reggae nostalgia trip, Rocksteady instead offers exactly what it promises: a primer on rocksteady, the mid-'60s musical movement that soon gave way to reggae and spawned some of Jamaica's signature songs ("Stop That Train," "The Tide Is High," "People Rocksteady," etc.). The story is told through a concert reuniting some of its stars, including Stranger Cole, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis. In the process, at the island's deliberately sauntering pace, the film addresses the underlying social issues that distinguish rocksteady from reggae. The artists talk about how rocksteady's love songs were the product of a relatively quiet Kingston, before the gangs—rude boys who couldn't find other jobs—sprang up. The ensuing violence closed performance venues, so fans were afraid to venture outside to hear rocksteady music, which declined at the end of the decade. In its place, responding to that political strife, the new stars of reggae began to rise. (NR) CHRIS KORNELIS (Also: SIFF Cinema, 11 a.m. Sun., June 13.)SATURDAY, JUNE 126:30 p.m., Pacific PlaceLast Train HomeDirected by Lixin Fan, one of the Chinese-Canadian crew on Up the Yangtze (SIFF '08), this powerful documentary also follows that country's huge, migratory workforce. Only instead of working on cruise ships catering to tourists, the Zhang family in Last Train Home just makes garments for Westerners. (In one scene, workers marvel at our waist sizes.) Mother and father Zhang left their village in Sichuan Province when their daughter was 1. They return home from Guangzhou once a year—in early spring, for Chinese New Year—to see her (and Grandmother, and a younger son). Titles inform us that 130 million workers perform the same homeward trek, and the scenes Fan captures are amazing. The Guangzhou train station becomes a sea of humanity—crying, fainting, pushing, cutting in line, the army and police trying to maintain order, railroad delays lasting for days. Seen from overhead, in the rain, it's a pointillist mass of black-haired heads interspersed with colorful umbrellas. Imagine your crowded Metro bus during rush hour. Now add another 100 passengers to that bus. Now imagine hundreds more buses exactly like that. Yet the Zhangs persist; this is their only chance to see their kids. But back home, unsurprisingly, their teenage daughter views them as strangers. They sacrifice for her education; she complains, "School is like a cage!" It's an old dilemma, and the fractious home scenes can feel like reality TV. But Last Train Home is a remarkable document of globalization, one you should remember each time you button your jeans. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 13.)7 p.m., EgyptianHowlDocumentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) originally intended to produce Howl as a nonfiction film before rethinking it as a narrative. They didn't rethink it enough. Howl is their dramatic deconstruction of the 1957 obscenity trial following the publication of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem. (James Franco plays Ginsberg, Bob Balaban the tough but fair judge.) The whole enterprise feels bogged down by a slavish dependence on factual matter: court transcripts, Ginsberg's own words, montages of news clippings, text on screen. It's a lot of regurgitated information, and very little interpretation. Partially inspired by Illuminated Poems, a collection pairing Ginsberg's verse with drawings by New Yorker cover artist Eric Drooker, Howl also contains animations teasing out the source poem's themes and imagery, intercut with Franco recreating its first public performance. The animation, luridly colored and sometimes laughably literal-minded, lurches and flows in an approximation of Ginsberg's juxtaposition of crudeness and grace. Howl is only partially animated, but it's all cartoon. There is not a bad actor in this movie (including Jon Hamm), but each cast member seems mired in wild impersonation. (NR) KARINA LONGWORTH8:30 p.m., Pacific PlaceSolitary ManDirectors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote The Girlfriend Experience, have here created The Michael Douglas Experience; whether you respond to the material depends largely on how much you enjoy the actor lazily riffing on the oily creatures of his past. After a prologue, set six and a half years ago, shows thriving car dealer and loyal husband Ben Kalmen (Douglas) being told by his doctor that there's an irregularity in his EKG, the film returns to the present with the damage of his mortality scare already done. Divorced from college sweetheart Susan Sarandon and his business ruined, Ben is free to continue his pathetic behavior: bedding girlfriend Mary Louise Parker's 18-year-old daughter and asking his own daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer, the most revelatory of the crowded, hardworking supporting cast), for rent money. Koppelman's script contains some tart dialogue about deluded, middle-aged male vanity—"Give me a hug, so people will think we're married," Ben tells Susan—and the film courageously shows its reprobate hero sliding further, not redeeming himself. "The men who live like Ben Kalmen all model themselves after characters Michael has played," Koppelman says in the press notes—and the lead is all too content not to stretch himself beyond playing a copy of a copy of a copy. (R) MELISSA ANDERSON

 
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