Film Capsule Reviews

Back to Kotelnich(France, 2003)

French writer Emmanuel Carrère, in Russia to cover the release of a Hungarian prisoner of war forgotten in an asylum for 50 years, met and befriended a couple in a bar. He returned after a year and a half to shoot more footage of them, then came back several weeks later after the wife (and infant son) were shockingly murdered. Carrère is a sharp narrator and has a calm, observant screen presence, but neither he nor we know what his film is about until the last five minutes. All documentaries are constructed -- no story unfolds in a linear, succinct manner, least of all just because a camera is rolling -- but few as transparently (and unsatisfyingly) as this one. Ultimately, Kotelnich is a sensitive, languidly paced contemplation of one's connections to one's roots and "homeland," camouflaged as a murder mystery and a eulogy. Carrère comes up with an unexpectedly personal and poignant ending, but you'll need a flask of vodka to get you there. (Michael Fox)

Sunday, April 18, 3:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, April 20, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 23, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Back to Kotelnich.
Back to Kotelnich.
Control Room.
Control Room.
Dame le Mano.
Dame le Mano.
The Fireman's Ball.
The Fireman's Ball.
Get Up!
Get Up!
Investigation Into the Invisible World.
Investigation Into the Invisible World.
The Miracle of Bern.
The Miracle of Bern.
The Missing.
The Missing.
Suite Habana.
Suite Habana.

Control Room(U.S./Egypt, 2003)

Jehane Noujaim's documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera and its coverage of the 2003 Iraq War. Noujaim makes a pass at being fair and balanced by including several American voices, the most honest of which admits that Al Jazeera represents an Arab nationalism essentially no different, but "on the other end of the scale," from Fox News' "American nationalism." Certainly the Arab journalists appear to be hardworking professionals; a couple of them seem to hate America, one hates only American policy, and a fourth is anxious to get a job with American TV and move to the States. Sharing the ups and downs of the war with them allows a good look both at how the Pentagon managed the news it fed to world journalists and at the station's evident exasperation with America's brilliant propaganda war and easy military victories. As for the channel's most provocative claim, that its Baghdad headquarters was targeted by American bombers, the film fails to refute our country's insistence that soldiers were taking fire from the building. No evidence is given either way, a journalistic failure on Noujaim's part that mars this otherwise interesting document. (Gregg Rickman)

Friday, April 16, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 17, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, April 18, 1:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Dame le Mano(Netherlands, 2003)

Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann's compelling documentary follows a half-dozen Cuban exiles living in northern New Jersey as they work, cook, and (for half the movie) play and dance traditional rumba music out of Africa via the Caribbean. The performers, mostly old, create rhythm on anything handy -- even plastic buckets -- and talk freely about how they use music to keep them vital, ward off depression, even fight cancer. Many of these individuals, particularly two of the dancers and a 62-year-old chef, are so vibrant and charismatic that it's a pleasure to spend time with them. The film's attempt to ground its stars in the daily reality of mostly marginal employment and exile is less successful -- the Cubans don't really open up about why they left home, maybe because Honigmann never asks -- but the footage of these great performers working as security guards, selling coffee, etc., drives home the point that they are musicians because they just love the music. Most likely you will, too. (Gregg Rickman)

Saturday, April 17, 3:10 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 19, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 21, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 22, 10 a.m., AMC Kabuki

The Firemen's Ball

(Czechoslovakia, 1967)

Milos Forman, this year's recipient of the SFIFF award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing, scored his greatest hits with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). Before finding freedom and fortune in America, Forman made several gently subversive and internationally acclaimed films in his native Czechoslovakia. This sporadically amusing sendup of bureaucratic incompetence was the last movie he made under a totalitarian regime (which belatedly banned it a few years after its 1967 release). A social satire set during a raucous annual bash marred by disappearing raffle prizes and an ineptly run beauty contest, the film has seen most of its edge inevitably dulled in the ensuing decades. The picture pointedly suggests that the buffoons in charge have effectively lost control, thanks to a haphazard mix of capriciousness, corruption, and favoritism, and the people have the power. Gee, maybe it's not so dated after all. (Michael Fox)

Sunday, April 18, 1:30 p.m., Castro

Get Up!(Japan, 2003)

The description of Izutsu Kazuyuki's Get Up! as a heartwarming yakuza comedy may induce reflexive eye-rolling, especially when the movie involves a plot to kidnap James Brown as a parting gift to a prison-bound gangster boss who wants to make contact with the daughter he hasn't seen for 25 years before doing his time. Still, it's silly, inconsequential, musical good times set among American and Japanese pop-culture impersonators at a resort. The funniest scenes are when characters cry -- Boss Habara's henchmen break into open-mouthed bawling and shameless prostration when they hear of his plans to disband the "family" before being incarcerated. I suppose I shouldn't take seriously the message that a man's devotion to his kin in crime redeems him for the neglect of his biological daughter. OK then, I'll just mull over the film's primitive use of an African-American character as a cartoonish butt of laughter. (Frako Loden)

Friday, April 16, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 19, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Investigation Into the Invisible World(France, 2002)

Neither sufficiently convincing to pass as a serious film nor sufficiently amusing to qualify as a mockumentary, this strikingly shot oddity belongs to the "ersatz documentary" genre. Apparently, many of Iceland's 283,000 iconoclastic denizens commune with elves, ghosts, and the like, and there is no social stigma associated with such practices and beliefs. (If this movie were in English, it would play for months in Marin County.) Despite the sober testimony of numerous ordinary folks, mediums, and even a "fractal cosmology researcher" (if only my incompetent high school guidance counselor had alerted me to such a career!), we're left outside the circle of adherents -- unenlightened and unmoved. French filmmaker Jean-Michel Roux treats us to breathtaking aerial photography of the dramatic island but fails to surmount the fundamental obstacle: How do you evoke -- let alone show -- the invisible? (Michael Fox)

Friday, April 16, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 17, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Miracle of Bern(Germany, 2003)

The crowd-pleasing German director Sonke Wortmann has made the best Hollywood-style movie in years, blending stellar production values, heartwarming payoffs, and a soupçon of social consciousness into a feel-good drama. It's 1954, and 12-year-old soccer nut Matthias -- along with his siblings and mother -- has trouble adjusting to his haunted father's return after 11 years in Soviet labor camps. This painful, confused chapter in Matthias' adolescence is woven into Germany's improbable run to the World Cup, which culminated in an upset of the invincible Hungarian team in the title match that ignited the country's confidence after a decade of depression and defeat. The movie boasts sharp writing, terrifically economical storytelling, and an endearing performance by the pre-pubescent Louis Klamroth as Matthias, and its rendering of the family's stumble-steps to reunification is genuinely touching. So it's especially unfortunate that late in the game, in the thralls of the hoariest conventions of both coming-of-age and sports-underdog stories, Miracle dives headlong into sentimentality. (Michael Fox)

Sunday, April 18, 5:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 20, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Missing(Taiwan, 2003)

In The Missing, the lead actor of Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Lee Kang-sheng, goes behind the camera as director and screenwriter, taking us on a cinéma vérité chase -- two chases, as it turns out -- through a Taipei that seems under constant reconstruction. An increasingly frantic grandmother runs up and down dirt mounds and hijacks scooters to find her 3-year-old grandson, and a young man emerges from a marathon gaming jag to search for his dead grandfather, in a world plagued by Alzheimer's, SARS, and the Coalition of the Willing. The occasional stranger is helpful, but the city itself is a series of walls, stairwells, and long hallways ending in the wrong child, the locked window, the dead end. Lee seems to have projected the loss of his own grandfather (to whom this film is dedicated) onto the loss of something elusive yet vital in Taiwanese life. (Frako Loden)

Sunday, April 18, 6:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, April 20, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Suite Habana(Cuba/Spain, 2003)

A near-wordless portrait of Havana over a 24-hour period, Fernando Pérez's film follows a dozen people, the majority of them working-class, through their daily lives. Operating mostly in alternating long shots and extreme close-ups, Pérez gets a great deal of mileage from an intricately planned soundtrack of music and street noise. It's an outstanding entry in the venerable "city symphony" genre, lacking the triumphant bombast of such variations as Walter Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin and Godfrey Reggio's 1983 Koyaanisqatsi. More modestly, it's a "suite," beginning and ending at night. The revolution is continuously evoked -- a 97-year-old woman seems to spend all day watching movies of rallies on TV -- but just as visible are rags, peeling paint, and rain-damaged portraits of the pope. The people of Havana are evidently poor yet resilient, but it's distressing that a retired professor of Marxism must work to get by, that an old woman "dreams no more" as she sells peanuts to live, and that the picture's one child protagonist has Down syndrome. (Gregg Rickman)

Friday, April 16, 9:25 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, April 18, 5 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 20, 1 p.m., Castro

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