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Funny Business 

Week 2 of the 47th San Francisco International Film Festival

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B-Happy

(Chile/Spain/Venezuela, 2003)

This sad film about a teenage girl in rural Chile who encounters a stream of unearned bad luck is buoyed by an effective nonperformance by Manuela Martelli in the lead role of Katty. As in many post-neorealist movies made around the (Third) world, amateurs can look good simply by staring mutely as catastrophes batter them. It's as effective a narrative formula as anything Hollywood has come up with, and no more honest. Director Gonzalo Justiniano seems almost sadistic in contriving fiascos for Katty, although not too much of her saga strains credibility. Eduardo Barril is particularly good as her jailbird father, suggesting Walter Huston circa The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in his scroungy charm. Katty's scenes with this reprobate are the picture's highlight. A good additional undercurrent is an ongoing satire of cheerful optimism -- even in prison, Dad gets lectured on the power of positive thinking. In this world, however, "Be happy" is an injunction that's impossible to follow. (Gregg Rickman)

Sunday, April 25, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 7 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View

Baadasssss!

(United States, 2004)

In 1971, actor/writer/ director Melvin Van Peebles turned down the studio comedies he was being offered and made the low-budget indie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. His controversial breakthrough hit introduced a kind of defiant, pussy-loving black anti-hero never before seen on-screen, opening the way for John Shaft, blaxploitation, and Samuel L. Jackson's 'fro in Pulp Fiction. Now his son, Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City), has directed an unflaggingly genial and entertaining re-enactment of the making of his pop's milestone. Although the new movie is crammed with social commentary -- Mario is as politically aware as his father -- it doesn't fully capture those angry and chaotic times. (Sweetback was sufficiently uncompromising for the Black Panther Party to endorse it as a "revolutionary masterpiece.") Ultimately, with its jabs at Hollywood and its collection of amusing supporting characters, Baadasssss! fits quite comfortably among the recent batch of self-congratulatory indie films about making indie films. (Michael Fox)

Tuesday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

(England/Afghanistan, 2003)

Everything astonishing and beautiful about this movie is also very sad: Mir, an 8-year-old Afghan boy, takes the filmmaker on a pugnaciously cheerful tour of one year out of his life. It's a year in which Mir and his aged parents and his brother's family are refugees, forced from their village and ending up at the famous UNESCO World Heritage site where the Taliban destroyed what had been the tallest statues on Earth for 1,600 years -- Afghanistan's foremost tourist attraction. Mir's mother asks, "Who would have thought we would end up living in caves?" But there they are, taking up residence in small pockmarks on a giant cliffside, as if to replace the ancient sculptures that are now gone. Americans here are a distant, faceless, airborne presence against the stunning but harsh landscape. There seems no better way than this film to see the effects of war and displacement on an ordinary family. (Frako Loden)

Wednesday, April 21, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 12:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Girl Trouble

(United States, 2004)

Over the course of four harrowing years, local filmmakers Lidia Szajko and Lexi Leban followed three teenage girls who'd run afoul of San Francisco's juvenile justice system. The teens grapple with drugs, pregnancy, screwed-up parents, and abusive boyfriends while mustering a distinctive brand of grit and resilience. By turns heart-wrenching and inspiring, the movie does a terrific job of conveying the girls' nightmarishly complicated situations without demonizing judges and prosecutors or sentimentalizing its subjects. In a just world, this documentary would match Hoop Dreams' epic three-hour duration; instead, its abridged length underscores its key theme that girls at risk get short shrift compared to the boys. This valuable picture also features the remarkable Lateefah Simon, a single mom in her early 20s and the executive director of the locally based Center for Young Women's Development. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, April 24, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 26, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 27, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Grimm

(Netherlands, 2003)

Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam's droll social satires revolve around sheltered innocents unwillingly thrust into a world of horny, ridiculous predators. In this deadpan Eurofable, the naifs are a brother and sister in their 20s abandoned in the forest by their father. The babes flee the woods for a grimy big city and then the pastel paradise of Spain, where they take up with a wealthy surgeon and his glum sister. We go along with the contrivances of this road movie -- including a pointless side trip to a Western-style ghost town -- only to be let down when the film dribbles to a close, without the revelation and transformation the characters seemed to be heading toward. While van Warmerdam's intentions never come completely into focus, his off-kilter sensibility produces a couple of truly hilarious moments. (Michael Fox)

Tuesday, April 27, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Handcuff King

(Finland/Sweden, 2002)

Dad's a layabout, Mom's a nag, and Grandpa's a mute veteran of the Winter War against the Soviets whose idea of a good time is to sit in the cockpit of a crashed plane in the woods. It's no wonder a teenage Finn who lives near the Swedish border in the mid-1970s becomes obsessed with replicating Harry Houdini's escape acts in this humorous coming-of-age saga. Full of period details like Super 8 movies (its protagonist is the same age as director Arto Koskinen would have been at the time), The Handcuff King offers modest pleasures that make it unlikely to be taken up by the international audience that embraced the similar but more affecting My Life as a Dog. Yet that's appropriate, as that film was Swedish and much of this one is built on the rivalry between Finns and Swedes, who look down on each other as yokels and cowards, respectively. (Sweden was neutral during the war, as no one ever forgets.) Like its hero, The Handcuff King charms, even if it doesn't escape the mundane world's rules. (Gregg Rickman)

Sunday, April 25, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 27, 6:45 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View

The Newcomers

(Chile, 2003)

A slick crime thriller from Chile about two country boys caught up in Santiago's underworld, The Newcomers is at one with narrative experiments around the world, from Irréversible to Memento, in telling its tale out of sequence. First we follow the teenager's experiences, then his older brother's, and finally those of their beloved, mistress of the local crime boss. Unlike, say, 21 Grams, in which the tale out of order didn't gain from the shuffling, this movie succeeds thanks to director Andrés Waissbluth, who makes the gimmick work by increasing our understanding of events with each new layer of the fiction. Waissbluth also draws uniformly good performances from his cast (which includes Eduardo Barril, the dad in B-Happy), although he's shameless in piling on the T&A, even for a film that takes place largely in a strip joint. As the female lead exploited by everyone (including her director), Antonella Rios gets extra credit for making us care about her character's fate, even past the too-abrupt ending. (Gregg Rickman)

Saturday, April 24, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Raghu Romeo

(India, 2003)

I had little hope for Raghu Romeo from reading the description, but I ended up liking it quite a lot, mainly because of its beaky but charismatic star, Vijay Raaz from Monsoon Wedding, who plays a sad-eyed, pure-loving bar waiter who idolizes a TV-melodrama heroine. Someone in the Bombay underworld is trying to kill the actress, so he kidnaps her and secludes her -- to her great annoyance, and the resentment of the bar dancer who's fond of him. The musical numbers aren't as lavish as their Bollywood counterparts, but they're extremely funny, especially a hip hop sequence with the lyrics "I am a hero! This is bliss! I am a rajah!" with Raghu in the plausible guise of Indian heartthrob Shahrukh Khan. The story moves between a crowded working-class Bombay and the rarefied, exclusive world of movie sets and gossipy TV reporters, so the waiter's identification with a persecuted actress becomes more of a social statement than a Nurse Betty-type fixation. (Frako Loden)

Friday, April 23, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 9 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View

Save the Green Planet!

(South Korea, 2003)

Dozens of recent films have dealt with the problem of violence in our culture, but none like Save the Green Planet!, an overactive Korean genre-blender that pops chunks of horror, science fiction, policier, and revenge tale into a blender and presses "purée." A young beekeeper who's had a rough life is convinced that aliens are responsible for Earthly evil, so he kidnaps the smug CEO of a chemical company, certain that the businessman is a "royal DNA" match for the "prince from Andromeda," due to arrive at the next lunar eclipse. Much torture, mayhem, and screaming ensues -- if you keep thinking of it as a comedy, you might be able to handle the gore -- between hilarious montage sequences and references to everything from Misery to Swarm to Psycho to 2001 to Planet of the Apes -- hell, maybe even a foreshadowing of The Passion of the Christ. It's a roaring good story about the only species that enjoys hurting its own kind. (Frako Loden)

Thursday, April 22, 10 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Friday, April 23, midnight, AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

What the Eye Doesn't See

(Peru, 2003)

The lives of a dozen major characters interact over the weeks of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's fall in this nonmusical Nashville (a better comparison point for this film's scope and political emphasis than the example of Magnolia offered by its publicity). Unlike a Robert Altman, however, the tone of Francisco J. Lombardi's opus is largely humorless, with a large cast meeting disparate fates as the regime collapses in a welter of corruption charges. While many of the details are specific to Peru, almost all of them can be easily understood by viewers unsteeped in the country's history, since so much of the political maneuvering (and, for that matter, the background of violent repression) is familiar to us in the United States. With excellent performances and clear storytelling throughout its 149 minutes, What the Eye Doesn't See falters only in some of its narrative contrivances: its too-repulsive comic-relief character (a nerd slightly more self-centered than more successful villains), and a dwelling on the bad guys' monstrous self-pity as their pet government crumbles. (Gregg Rickman)

Thursday, April 22, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

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