SIFF Week 2: Picks & Pans

What to see, or not, this week.

CamilleA white-trash loser (James Franco) is pressured into marrying a beautiful but annoying loudmouth (Sienna Miller) who wants to honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Along the way, their motorcycle crashes and she dies, but inexplicably won't stay dead. With hubby being accused of her murder, and the still-lively body starting to decompose, it's a race against time to get to Niagara and rekindle their relationship. The bizarre premise is never properly explained or exploited; you'll feel like the undead watching it. (NR) LUKE Y. THOMPSON Uptown: 4 p.m.Emmanuel Jal: War ChildA boy soldier in Sudan's bloody civil war in the late '80s, Emmanuel Jal knows a different kind of bedtime lullaby. "The music I used to hear was guns and bombs," sings the 20-something London rapper (who isn't sure of his age). Karim Chrobog's doc follows Jal, a hip-hop activist, as he returns home to visit a father he hasn't seen since he picked up an AK-47. Chrobog offers a glimpse into Jal's childhood during a war that claimed two million lives. His film is considerably better thanks to a 1989 documentary team that recorded a younger Jal as a spokes-boy for the "Lost Boys" of Sudan, offering a unique then-and-now perspective. With its focus on the charismatic Jal, the movie is no depress-you-mentary. But its tends toward hagiography (as if Jal could walk on crocodile-infested water), and its direction is wayward. What might be better than watching War Child? Pop, lock, and droppin' it to one of Jal's albums. (NR) JOSHUA LYNCH SIFF Cinema: 7:15 pm. (Also: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 14.)Jar CityA blockbuster in its native Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City is a somber, sinewy police procedural with a head-clearing view of crime. The discovery of a bludgeoned body sets seen-it-all cop Erlendur (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) and his squad on the trail of a decades-old mystery involving rape allegations, a corrupt small-town constable, and his trio of thug enforcers. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unconnected side plot, a dead girl's grieving father immerses himself in shady doings at a genetic-research facility. The sharing of genomic and medical data—an ongoing controversy in a country of only 300,000 residents—stoked the movie's popularity at home, where the issue of who has the right to control (or reveal) personal histories resonates strongly. Here, the movie's urgency lies mostly in its convincing cast, its varied urban-to-pastoral locations (in light that ranges from harsh to bilious), and its cold-pro handling of familiar genre machinery, made fresh by unusual detail—such as the investigator's fast-food predilection for sheep heads. (NR) JIM RIDLEY SIFF Cinema, 321 Mercer St. (McCaw Hall), 324-9996, $9-$11. 9:45 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 801 E. Pine St., 4 p.m. Fri. June 6. KatýnA national trauma on the order of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Little Big Horn all rolled into one, the Soviet Russian massacre of 15,000 Polish officers during World War II has been well studied in history books and documentaries. It's hard to understand, then, what new perspective the eminent Polish director Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron, Kanal, etc.) hoped to add to the subject. His own father was one of the victims, so this is obviously a personal film. But it's also a sprawling, confusing, badly directed personal film. One family appears to be modeled on his own. How, why, and if they cross paths with other characters isn't terribly clear. It's hard to tell many characters apart. Years pass, but children don't age. The Nazis are bad, and the Reds are worse. And it takes way too long to get to the inevitable outcome. Only in its final, terrible moments does Katýn achieve a clarity of purpose—rendering the machinery of death in its every cog and detail. But then, not every creative work can be engineered so precisely as murder. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 31.)PloySIFF has always liked Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe), but I'm a little less sold on the guy. His latest, about a married couple stuck in a Bangkok hotel, falls into what be called the cinema of stasis. He might leave her. She might leave him. He might have an affair with the 18-year-old girl—Ploy, that's her name, and apparently not an English-language pun—he meets in the hotel bar. The wife, an alcoholic former actress who hides coke in her purse, might have an affair with a creepy fan. Both apparently left their spouses to marry back in America, where they now live. Meanwhile, Ploy just wants a place to shower while she's waiting for her mother to pick her up the next day. And we're wondering—what the hell does a normal teenager want to do with a pair of depressed, unhappily married middle-aged people? To break free of this very interior drama set in the interior of a hotel, Ratanaruang provides visions of a passionate trust between two hotel employees (or they may be projections of Ploy's imagination). Likewise, scenes of murder and kidnapping may reflect the wife's movie-fed imaginings. Engrossing if not convincing, Ploy makes a waking dream of jealousy, doubt, and infidelity. It's a morose shadow-play cast by a marriage neither partner believes in anymore. Says the husband, "Sometimes, fighting reassures us that we're still close to each other." Tell that to your spouse after the movie. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 31.)Ain't ScaredThe French title—Regarde-moi—doesn't quite translate here in this superb teen banlieue drama, but it doesn't really have to. Closer paraphrases might be "Look at me" or "Pay attention to me," though fear is very much a texture of the film. It's set in one of those horrid suburban tower blocks ("le Cité") where the poor and dark-skinned immigrants are kept far from glittering Paris. Who's scared here? Usually it's white, middle-class French society that's worried about rioting and car burning in the banlieues. That's all we read about over here (excepting the action-comedy District B13). But 24-year-old (!) writer-director Audrey Estrougo shows with great sympathy and even-handedness how the trash-talking teens are scared of the outside world, scared of growing up, and, above all, scared of the opposite sex. Le Cité operates according to tribal clannishness—keeping your sister from sleeping around or dressing improperly (at least according to the boastful boys); and keeping the boys in your ethnic group from sleeping with the white girls, who put out too easily (according to some girls). Twenty-four eventful hours are replayed from different perspectives, with the male-female split in perspective a far bigger gulf than that between the city and Le Cité. (NR) BRIAN MILLER SIFF Cinema: 4:35 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place, 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 31.)Ask NotThere's an old Daily Show episode in which Jason Jones stripped to a disco beat trying to distract an Arabic translator kicked out of the Army for being gay. No amount of Jones' pasty, jiggling man-boobs could tempt the former soldier. That was the absurd side of "don't ask, don't tell." Taking an entirely more serious approach, Johnny Symons' documentary presents any number of sound arguments against our military's policy: Recruiting goals are falling short, people with specific language skills are desperately needed, and there's no evidence sexual orientation has any bearing on one's ability to be a solider. Among those Symons interviews is Washington resident Alan Steinman, of American Veterans for Equal Rights. But there's nothing new or surprising here to inspire viewers to rally in protest of the policy, or even write their senator. The film solemnly marches from the opening of its string-heavy soundtrack to the closing credits. I don't think I'm alone in being more easily swayed by the doughy Jones' G-string than a bunch of dour 20-somethings staging a sit-in. (NR) LAURA ONSTOT Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 30.)Bad HabitsFittingly, Bad Habits begins at the dinner table of a Mexico City family whose patriarch almost chokes to death. Whether metaphorically or literally, this film revolves around food and its mortal and psychological impact on several different lives—not five minutes go by without someone shoving something in their mouth, or stupidly refusing to do so. What this all means remains something of a mystery by film's end, but director Simon Bross does a masterful job of patiently unifying the seemingly disjointed storylines that flash like a fever dream. In addition to all the starving and gorging, it's raining in Mexico City. In fact, it never stops—to the point where people are dying and having to be rescued in a manner eerily similar to Hurricane Katrina. Bad Habits is as alluring as it is perplexing: You may later leave the theater frustrated, but you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen. (NR) MIKE SEELY Egyptian: 9:45 p.m. (Also: 9:15 p.m. Sun., June 1.)Butterfly DreamingThough shot in Seattle, Rufus Williams' first feature doesn't have much of a local connection. He's an Australian-born mathematician who now lives in L.A., where most of his cast is from. Andrew Bowen (Mad TV) plays a mathematician with an online gambling addiction; his wife just killed herself—or was it murder?—and now the bereaved husband is finding consolation in the arms of another woman (Missy Crider from 24). Flashbacks and fantasy sequences—the dead wife is back!—suggest the mathematician is losing his mind. His shrink is no help, and the cops soon come knocking at his door. (Unless those cops are merely figments of a guilty conscience, perhaps?) Somewhere knocking around Williams' script is the chaos-theory notion of small events leading to large, distant catastrophes—an idea explored better by Ray Bradbury, Star Trek, dozens of other sci-fi texts, and even the recent Ashton Kutcher movie The Butterfly Effect (words I never thought I'd type). Any film that has its hero crying over a dead chicken in his backyard can't be all bad. But next time, please, more butterfly and less dreaming. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9:15 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 31.)Kiss the Bride"Our obsession with's masochistic," says one queer character in C. Jay Cox's Kiss the Bride, a "scrappy indie" which successfully manages to reproduce, on a shoestring, anonymously professional big-budget asininity. Matt (Philipp Karner), an out-and-proud staffer at Queery magazine, gets a surprise invitation to the straight wedding of the long-out-of-sight high-school best buddy who, way back when, turned Matt onto the joys of banging dudes. Reunited in the "podunk town" of his youth with the perpetually shirt-free Ryan (James O'Shea), that shared secret prods Matt into an "Is he or isn't he?" investigation. Further adding to the confusion is Ryan's fiancée, with whom both men are taken (played by vast-faced Tori Spelling, an unlikely siren to tempt men out of deeply entrenched sexual preference). Along with a gallery of hastily sketched caricatures visiting for the nuptials, the comedy is heavily reliant on naughty double-entendres (e.g., an "I'm coming" gag that was stupid in American Pie). In the film's endless countdown to the exchange of vows, complete predictability is avoided only thanks to its openness to the fluidity of sexual identity—which isn't enough to make this anything more than the most ignoble outing in bi-curious screen hijinks since France produced Poltergay. (R) NICK PINKERTON Egyptian: 7 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 30.)Let the Right One InA quirky little children's movie with vampires and brutal stabbings. Teetering between alarming morality tale and saccharine gore-fest, the film achieves genuine offbeat brilliance. Why it's playing in the Contemporary World Cinema category and not the Midnight Adrenaline program is a mystery. The story traces the budding romance between Oskar and Eli, 12-year-old neighbors living in a Stockholm suburb. Oskar needs help fighting back against the bullies at school. Eli (a girl) may be killing people in their apartment building. Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, respectively, give terrific performances as the young sweethearts. They share a bloody, creepy kiss that's hard to shake from your memory, a trait shared by the film as a whole. A gem as volatile and entertaining as this one puts dozens of predictable Hollywood genre flicks to shame. You better buy a ticket now while you have the chance. Come Halloween, if Let the Right One In ever gets released, Saw V will probably butt it out of the marketplace. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Uptown: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 31.)Mister FoeAfter the apparent suicide of his mother, Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) flees his family's country estate to Edinburgh and starts spying on a young woman (Sophia Myles) who looks remarkably like Mom. Presented as a sort of romantic neo-fairy-tale, the movie rarely acknowledges the inherent creepiness of its premise. Note: Writer-director David Mackenzie is expected to attend the fest, and also present his 2003 Young Adam. (NR) LUKE Y. THOMPSON Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: 4:15 p.m. Sat., May 31.)One Hundred NailsThe lead character in One Hundred Nails physically resembles Jesus Christ. In the film's key scene, this loony ex-professor (Raz Degan) desecrates religious texts at a prestigious Italian university by hammering nails through them (hence the title). Throughout the movie, he delivers monologues about how people who read books are ignorant, and how life experience is the only valid learning method. While this philosophy may sound appealing to a lazy college student, there must be some other symbolic message intended here. However, it never surfaces in this muddled feature from veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi. The story starts out fast and loud like a Da Vinci Code–type thriller, but quickly morphs into one of those charming comedies about a quirky town that welcomes an outsider. When the two genres meet, it isn't pretty, resulting in a baffling conclusion that doesn't serve comedy or drama. Is it the second coming? Or just second guessing on the filmmaker's part? (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 4:30 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 7 p.m. Sun., June 1.)Song Sung BlueGreg Kohs spent eight years trying to get inside the heads of a Milwaukee husband-and-wife duo who cover Neil Diamond songs, and the mostly successful result is this affectionate documentary portrait of Lighting and Thunder (aka Mike and Clair Sardina). While it would've been easy to cast a condescending eye on this Midwestern couple's quest to make ends meet through mimicry of Diamond, Kohs treats his subjects with the utmost respect. What he doesn't do is address Mike's backstory soon enough: Only when he's hospitalized toward the end of the film do we learn that Mike was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, where he developed a substance-abuse problem that still dogs him. (Hence Mike's jittery behavior as the duo struggles to find gigs and put food on the table for their kids.) But Kohs' meticulousness, as well as a heartfelt cameo from Eddie Vedder, more than make up for one structural shortcoming. (NR) MIKE SEELY Harvard Exit: 4:30 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 7 p.m. Mon., June 2.)American TeenDirector Nanette Burstein is so intent here on making a nonfiction version of The Breakfast Club that she erases every trace of documentary convention for most of this pleasing but ultimately unconvincing film. You can imagine what the teen focus groups told Paramount Vantage ("OMG! Documentaries are, like, so totally dull! Those are for school!"), and I'm sure the studio executives held up Frederick Wiseman's High School as Exhibit A in What Movie Not to Make. Mission accomplished. Burstein finds her Molly Ringwald figure in Hannah Bailey, who provides a suspiciously scripted-sounding voiceover introduction to the film. (Did she write it herself? Did John Hughes write Ringwald's lines?) Clearly, we are meant to root for Hannah, who wants to leave her Indiana hick town to become an artist—or, better yet, a filmmaker. She and the half-dozen other principals (jock, dork, deb, etc.) were weaned on The Real World, and they have no problem signing consent forms, wearing radio mics, and discussing their sex lives on camera. There is no such thing as oversharing for this YouTube generation. This is what makes American Teen so problematic for viewers and supposedly responsible older parties, including Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture). The film has been so heavily shaped and edited, just like a Hollywood teen flick, that the manufacturing overwhelms any genuine insight into adolescent life today. What about the kids who didn't sign the release forms, who don't dream of reality-TV fame, who keep their private lives, well, private? Those we never meet. And that's a movie Burstein will never make. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian, 7 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 31.)Ben XI was originally going to write that Ben X is the best movie I've seen about teen angst since Donnie Darko, but that honor at SIFF may properly belong to Ain't Scared (see above). Still, it's the best film about a bullied Belgian teen with Asperger's syndrome I've ever seen, and its blurred life-into-vidgame fantasy sequences make it seem doubly topical. Ben (Greg Timmermans) spends waaay too much time logged onto a multi-user fantasy roleplaying game, but what other consolation does he have in life? His age peers torment him; girls won't look his way; and his divorced parents seem powerless to help. On screen, however, his pimple-faced avatar smites rival warriors and wins a comely princess (whose braces make her resemble a certain girl from his high school class...). Timmermans looks too old for his character, whose past-tense voiceovers suggest a certain ominous Columbine-style dénouement, but director Nic Balthazar—expected to attend the fest—has carefully constructed Ben X. Its twist ending isn't borrowed or cheap. And the barrage of screen graphics, text messages, and cell-phone videos speaks to modern teens' isolation-in-connectivity. "2 late 2 heal," Ben texts his vidgame paramour. You don't have to be Belgian to know that feeling. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Sun., June 1.)Captain AhabCaptain Ahab is a lot like that horrible remake of Halloween Rob Zombie made last year, only in French. The film is a prequel to Moby Dick that imagines the obsessed skipper's tragic childhood, when he was abused by virtually every adult figure he met. These terrible experiences turned him into a crazy whale-hater, you see. He's not actually evil. He's just a victim of society. (Next thing you know, there'll be compassionate biopics about how Charles Manson and Ted Bundy were once also carefree, innocent boys. Oh, shit, I probably just helped sell those two ideas in Hollywood.) The real kicker? Rob Zombie's movie was better. Captain Ahab is a dreary endurance test from start to finish. Perhaps it would be interesting if you were doing a Ph.D. thesis on Melville's novel, but for those of us who slogged through it in high school, it's painful. While the acting and production values are both top-notch, it's impossible to enjoy them as your eyes keep fluttering shut. Every time a character mentions Starbuck, you'll wish you'd have gotten coffee beforehand. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: SIFF Cinema, 4:30 p.m. Tues., June 3.)Garden PartyIn an attempt to score some serious indie cred, writer-director Jason Freeland crams in as many random situations involving nudity, drugs, and homosexuality as possible in Garden Party. The film opens with 15-year-old April (Willa Holland) standing in her bra and putting on enough makeup to rival a drag queen. She soon escapes her creepy stepfather for the refuge of her lesbian cousin's house in L.A. (Does it matter that she's a lesbian if she's only onscreen for 2.5 seconds?) Disturbed by some girl-on-girl action, April then decides to get her own place by working as a nude model. Meanwhile, Midwestern 'mo transplant Nathan (Alexander Cendese) dreams of becoming a dancer but settles for dealing pot for a mysterious realtor named Sally St. Clair (Vinessa Shaw). Her secrets for being L.A.'s best broker? Looking like a porn star and sneaking her clients fine bud. Eventually, for some reason or another, April interns for Sally and rooms with Nathan. (She's fine with boy-on-boy action.) Sundry subplots about wannabe rock stars and various fetishists are forcibly tied into the main characters' lives. Garden Party's cast consists mainly of attractive young talent, but there's only so much they can do with these cringingly contrived and self-conscious scenarios. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Pacific Place: 7 p.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 31.)Idiots and AngelsCult animator Bill Plympton's hand-penciled expressionism is most recognizable from his shorts, likely because his deadpan, spatially distorting sight gags often can't sustain momentum in feature form, almost by design. Yet his beautifully creepy fifth film somehow transcends this limitation and proves his most fully realized yet, a grim fairy-tale comedy about a truculent businessman who discovers angelic wings sprouting from his back. The mean bastard undergoes a spiritual awakening as his new appendages thwart his every transgression; told without a word of dialogue, it's a humiliating rise-fall-and-rise tale that affects a bar owner and his salsa-dancing wife, a conniving surgeon, and a town full of arson victims. Less concerned with gags than nimble storytelling and wide-screen aesthetics (every brooding corner of the frame is blotted in monochromatic noir hues), Plympton mines elegance from the utterly gonzo. (NR) AARON HILLIS Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Sat., May 31.)MiragemanFrom Chile, this enjoyably comic-booky superhero film understands what many directors of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme did not: Action heroes don't need to talk. They've got their awesome muscles and ass-kicking ability, and that's enough. They're more effective keeping their mouths shut and articulating with their fists. I have no idea if Marko Zaror can act, or if he could make the jump to Hollywood's A-list. (He stunt-doubled the Rock in The Rundown.) But he's pretty effective just moving around the rooftops and alleys of Santiago, where his character sets himself up as a masked, low-rent vigilante dubbed "Mirageman" by the cute blonde TV newswoman he rescues. Mirageman's media satire is considerably less graceful than its hero: the public and press try to shoehorn into his fame, and one chubby loser appeals on the air to be Robin to his Batman. With a rape-traumatized kid brother in the mental ward, our Mirageman is basically starring in a maudlin telenovela. True action fans will find the beatings to be PG-level tame. Zaror is bigger and slower than Jet Li or Tony Jaa, but all his fights appear to have unified, in-frame integrity with no CGI or wire-work augmentation. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 11:55 p.m. (Also: 9:15 p.m. Tues., June 3.)Savage GraceDesigned more for train-wreck gawkery than psychological illumination, Tom Kalin's garish melodrama applies icehouse style to hothouse material: the 1972 murder of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, former wife of the heir to the Bakelite fortune, by the grown son she'd taken to fucking to cure his homosexuality. From the life-preserver-clinging of his culture-vulture mom (Julianne Moore) to the contempt of his aloof playboy dad (Stephen Dillane), young Antony Baekeland was molded from birth into a sexually confused, neurotic mama's boy (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne). His standing as his mother's de facto husband led inevitably to incest, violence, and a grimly redundant self-suffocation; in Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman's hands, his downfall becomes a glossy travelogue with stops in Paris, Majorca, and London (where a fateful kitchen knife awaits). This marks Kalin's first feature in the 15 years since his queer-cinema landmark Swoon, a grave, provocative retelling of the Leopold and Loeb case. This, by contrast, is a tawdry nighttime soap that marvels without insight at its characters' despicable behavior: It squanders a major performance by Moore, who rips into Barbara's confrontational mania, maternal perversity, and all-consuming need with nail-clawing fury and no small amount of malicious humor—as when she tries to quiet her increasingly agitated son/hand-job recipient with a sharp "Inside voice!" (R) JIM RIDLEY Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place, 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 1.)Time to DieWhen a film is called Time to Die and stars a 91-year-old woman, the conclusion should be fairly obvious. What matters are the events that lead there. The movie is full of quiet moments: a just-missed telephone call, children trespassing in the yard, eavesdropping on the neighbors. These activities might be exciting if you were lonely and holed up in a nursing home. For the rest of us, they make for dull filmgoing. Very little happens in Time to Die, but not in a beautiful, meditative way. More like a depressing, sleeping-pill kind of way. Shot in melancholy black and white, it's like paying $11 to visit your dying Polish granny (with subtitles). Still, Danuta Szaflarska gives a deeply felt performance in a thankless lead role that requires her to gloomily contemplate mortality by staring out a window for 104 minutes. The scenes between Szaflarska and her charming canine companion, Phila, are the only flashes of life in this otherwise sullen outing. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sun., June 1.)Creative NatureThis documentary about renowned glass blower William Morris will thrill casual art fans wondering how grains of sand become the latest overpriced Chihuly masterpiece. (And yes, Chihuly appears as a source in the film.) The movie is full of fascinating studio scenes in which Morris and his crew cut, shape, and manipulate molten glass as if it were safe and easy. This footage helps obscure some otherwise questionable elements. Gratuitous shots abound of Morris traversing mountains shirtless; then there's the New-Age psychobabble. (An early monologue about why skin is the most powerful human organ is a real hoot.) Running a scattershot 85 minutes, Creative Nature would've been better as an hour-long PBS special. Yet it works simply by highlighting Morris' impressive body of work. Most of his career is on display here, and it's stunning enough to outweigh all the Mother-Earth proselytizing. Morris—or director John Andres—may be guilty of liberal environmentalist self-indulgence, but the glass will outlast the film. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 31.)Encounters at the End of the WorldGive this guy his own TV show already. Three years after Grizzly Man was my favorite film at SIFF, Werner Herzog is back with more oddballs in extreme places. His new documentary goes to Antarctica, where he drolly intones against penguins, the rules of civilization, soft-headed tree-huggers, and anything else that gives us a cute, false, romantic view of Nature in all its terrible, savage glory. And you know what? Herzog said that all before, and said it better, in Grizzly Man, which had the specificity of one fascinatingly deluded subject (Timothy Treadwell) and his sad, unforgettable story. But if Encounters is a softer, gentler, more comic film, with Herzog as the dour tour guide who claims to despise everything (even when you suspect he doesn't), it's a very enjoyable bizarro-world version of the Discovery Channel. Herzog seeks to banish or overcome everything that's safe, sensible, and sanitized. Yet even as he vows not to make a film about penguins, that's just what he does—finding the solitary madman (mad penguin?) among the identical flock. The endearingly contrarian, curmudgeonly Uncle Werner presents himself as an antipodal Al Gore, declaring, "Our presence on this planet does not seem to be sustainable." Only he says it like that's a good thing. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 4:30 p.m. Wed., June 4.)NewcastleFans of Abercrombie & Fitch's homoerotic ads, rejoice: Your flick is here. Director Dan Castle's debut has lots of hot Australian dudes frolicking nude on a remote beach. But for argument's sake, let's pretend Newcastle actually is—as SIFF insists—a coming-of-age story about surfing, sibling rivalry, and romance. Considered under those terms, Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) is a 17-year-old with the potential to compete on the international surf circuit, if he'd get over his plethora of hang-ups. He fears he can never live up to the legacy of his older brother, Victor (Reshad Strik), a former surf sensation. He's embarrassed by his gay twin brother, Fergus (Xavier Samuel), who bears a weird resemblance to The Cure's Robert Smith. Oh, and worst of all, he's still a virgin. Besides the surfing, this means that Newcastle hinges upon a weekend excursion made by Jesse and his friends that will change his life forever. More memorable are the skin-tastic beach romps and big-wave action sequences. (NR) ERIKA HOBART Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 1.)Saving LunaHere's a small wonder: A clear-eyed documentary about environmentalism and government bureaucracy. (Yes, such a thing is possible.) Luna is a baby orca, separated from his family, who plays with boaters off the coast of Vancouver Island. As Luna becomes a tourist attraction, his safety is compromised, and action must be taken. The meat of the film deals with the selfishness of us humans—so unlike the whales!—as various groups squabble over Luna's fate. Saving Luna has terrific editing and beautiful underwater photography. On land, things are considerably uglier. (Director Suzanne Chisholm will likely attend both screenings.) A warning to parents, however: While the movie is playing in SIFF's Films4Families series, it's probably too serious, complicated, and sad for most children. (Parents who read about this recent Northwest news story will know what I'm talking about—the heartbreak that could've been avoided.) This is not another Free Willy. Do not bring overly sensitive kids under, say, age 12, who are prone to tears. Everyone else should get in line. (NR) FRANK PAIVA SIFF Cinema: 11 a.m. (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 8.)Shadow of the Holy BookThey just don't make ruthless dictators and bloodthirsty despots the way they used to. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Ceaucescu...there really ought to be a musical (preferably by the guys from South Park). Scraping the bottom of the post-Soviet barrel, Finnish filmmaker Arto Halonen and his American cohort, Kevin Frazier, venture to Turkmenistan, a resource-rich, back-assward former Communist satellite run by supreme holy nutcase Saparmurat Niyazov. You can guess that his face adorns every wall and all the currency, and that atop every building there are rotating gilt statues of him (to always face the sun!). We expect that much of a former apparatchik-turned-living-national-deity (always with the bad dye job, always), even in 2006. Unfortunately for the filmmakers (who are expected to attend SIFF), Niyazov kicked the bucket as they were filming; and unfortunately for Turkmenistan, his tyrant-lite replacement—who looks like a cloning experiment that got dropped on the laboratory floor—is every bit as corrupt and self-serving. None of this is particularly new or surprising. And neither is Niyazov's insistence that Western companies lining up to do business in Turkmenistan had to first pay to publish in translation his vanity book of holy wisdom, the Ruhnama (think of it as Mao's little red book, only bigger, green, and vastly more idiotic). Halonen and Frazier do their best to emulate Michael Moore, but watching their tedious, dead-end reporting, as they try to meet and shame various businessmen, is a cinematic dead end as well. You know that stage show A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, which satirizes so-called Scripture by playing it straight? I'm thinking A Very Gay Roller Disco Ruhnama-thon. Either that, or just piss on the guy's grave, which always seems funny to me. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 2.)Son of a LionA heavy sense of been there, done that accompanies Son of a Lion. Did you know that illegal arms manufacturing in the Middle East is difficult, dangerous, and tough on children? Australian debut director Benjamin Gilmour assumes you don't. He wrote and shot this family drama with the help of tribes from northwest Pakistan. The road to geopolitical understanding may be paved with good intentions, but they'll do no good if everyone falls asleep behind the wheel on the way to a solution. Gilmour's script includes about 20 minutes of plot for the actual 92-minute running time. The pace makes a glacier look downright speedy, and the shaky camera work leaves nothing nice to look at. What's worse, the film is peppered with awkwardly staged conversations among tribal elders about U.S. foreign policy. It's one thing to remake a stereotypical old father-son melodrama (11-year-old Niaz wants to go to school, not make guns with Daddy!). It's another matter entirely to bludgeon an audience over the head with your own agenda under the guise of peace. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 11 a.m. Sun., June 1.)32AAidan Quinn's sister, Marian, wrote and directed this female coming-of-age story (the title refers to bra size) set in 1979 Dublin. When 13-year-old Maeve (Ailish McCarthy) starts developing breasts, she catches the eye of a hunky boy (Shane McDaid), but his affections prove fickle. Quinn has a great ear for dialogue, and Jared Harris appears as the girl's father, but the unfocused story ultimately doesn't satisfy. (NR) LUKE Y. THOMPSON Pacific Place: 4 p.m. (Also: Uptown, 7 p.m. Tues., June 3.)Captain Abu RaedThis plot has been told a million times over. But you have to let it slide with Captain Abu Raed, considering it's the first Jordanian feature film to be made in 50 years. Thus it arrives with plenty of buzz, not only for that fascinating distinction but also because Nadim Sawahla, who plays the title character, won the Best Actor award at the 2007 Dubai International Film Festival. It's a heartwarming story about an airport janitor who finds a discarded captain's hat. When Abu Raed dons the cap, the children in his neighborhood mistake him for an actual pilot, and he in turn fills their heads with fabricated stories of hope and wisdom. When it comes to world cinema, this plot has been reworked ad nauseam. But the scenery is nice: Abu Raed's home sits high atop his poor neighborhood. And the director, Amin Matalqa, takes full advantage of this, offering rich textural shots of the buildings and surrounding landscape. (NR) BRIAN J. BARR Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Wed., June 4)FighterSet in Copenhagen's Turkish émigré community, Natasha Arthy's Fighter could take place almost anywhere in the world. It centers on Aicha (Semra Turan), a high-school student whose parents want her to become a doctor despite her true passion and talent for kung fu. She secretly enrolls in an elite martial-arts school, where she falls for a Danish youth who both challenges and encourages her fighting. But her secret is exposed at her brother Ali's engagement party, where she gets into a hand-to-hand kitchen battle with a guest. (This is arguably the most original of the film's many fight scenes, which were choreographed by Xian Gao of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame.) Ultimately, Aicha is forced to decide between her family or kung fu, which sounds pretty tired by the terms of American cinema. But our newly borderless world is what makes Fighter likeable in the end. Aicha is a multifaceted heroine for anyone who's felt out of place within their own community. (NR) BRIAN J. BARR Uptown: 1:30 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place, 7 p.m. Tues., June 3.)Go With Peace, JamilDar Salim is furious in Go With Peace, Jamil. He wants to kill someone. And having killed once, he may kill again. Yet what's really torturing him isn't just avenging his mother's murder when he was a boy, but knowing that the example he's now setting for his young son is so wrong. In a taut, sweaty, intensely conflicted performance few will forget from SIFF, Salim plays a Sunni Arab living in Copenhagen, where "honor"—always that loaded term—depends on locking up the women and never backing down from a fight with the Shiites. Danish-Palestinian director Omar Shargawi (who plays a small role) needlessly pauses his film for fatherly wisdom and didactic scenes about the Sunni-Shiite schism, but Jamil drives forward with the terrible, inexorable momentum of a blood feud. The grainy 16mm film stock and hand-held camera give a documentary-style intimacy to the planning and execution of each escalating act of revenge. "I'm trapped in a game!" Jamil despairs, and that game can only end in death.  (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit, 807 E. Roy St., 324-9996, $9-$11. 9 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 801 E. Pine St., 9:15 p.m. Wed. June 4.)Great Speeches From a Dying WorldThe guy holding the "Smile" sign at the Marion Street pedestrian ramp to the ferry terminal? He's got a name. The wino begging for change outside Dick's in LQA? Him, too. And the crack addict getting into a noisy argument on your bus? Local filmmaker Linas Phillips befriends them all in his second SIFF documentary. (See interview.) Great Speeches is a generous, well-shot, well-edited film. And, if anything, its well-intentioned filmmaker is too generous with his subjects, too infatuated—as if he's the first guy who ever noticed all those sleeping forms beneath I-5 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Well, Linas, they were there before you moved to Seattle, they will be there after you leave, and we're actually managing the problem—meaning those among the homeless who want to be helped—better than most other cities. It's much worse in New York and L.A., where Phillips has also spent time. And you could apply the same pedestal gimmick (sorry, but that's what it is) of having the homeless read famous literary passages in any city in the U.S. (In fact, a recent ad campaign achieved the same effect, without the slurred verbiage, by dressing up the homeless in tailored suits and putting Peter Steinbrueck and other local celebs in hobo garb.) Phillips does his best work here when focusing on the story of one guy, Tomey Smith, and letting him speak in his own words. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 4 p.m. (Also: 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 3.)Shall We Kiss?The lovers in Emmanuel Mouret's fourth film come to their pairings through generous amounts of destiny and happenstance. The movie begins in Nantes, where a chance encounter between a Parisian fabric designer (Julie Gayet) and a local art restorer (Michaël Cohen) leads to dinner, drinks, and nearly to the titular meeting of the lips. But wait, the woman says—first she must tell a cautionary tale about how a similarly innocent smooch created seismic shifts in the relationships of two other couples. That story then plays out in flashback, with the hangdog Mouret perfectly self-cast as a lovelorn schoolteacher who falls for his best female friend (Virginie Ledoyen), no matter that she's happily married and he's dating a beautiful stewardess (the ebulliently ditsy Frédérique Bel). I'll say no more about how it all ends up, except that Mouret marries Rohmer's visual lucidity and love of smart dialogue to the sort of screwball-comedy antics that wouldn't have seemed out of place in the films of Lubitsch or Hawks. And he does it all with a beguiling lightness of touch. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Uptown: 9 p.m. (Also: 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 2.)StrangersLadies, tell me you wouldn't sleep with Liron Levo the first time you met him. Tall, taut-bellied, with a strong nose and soulful eyes, he looks like a commando—which his character, Eyal, may be back in Israel. Rana (Lubna Azabal) meets Eyal on the subway in Berlin, where both are visiting for the 2006 World Cups. They're tourists who communicate haltingly and endearingly in English, their second (or third) language, meaning it's a lot easier to kiss than speak. Strangers is nothing if not contrived in its setup and ensuing culture clash (Rana turns out to be a Palestinian living in Paris), and it floods the background of this hasty, star-crossed romance with TV scenes of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Sounds overdetermined, but Strangers is so much better than that: The two leads are utterly charming as they gambol about Berlin (mostly improvising as they go), followed by Ram Shweky's excellent hand-held HD camerawork that was clearly grabbed guerrilla-style during the actual World Cup. Strangers is all about immediacy, the present moment, no matter how much the politics of the past intrude. It also barrels along without wasting a minute, jumping from Berlin to Paris, where Rana's leftist friends provide a devastating cafe snapshot of European anti-Semitism. (No spoilers about who gets the last word.) Levo you may recognize from past films by Amos Gitai; Belgian actress Azabal had a small, high-impact role in Paradise Now. The film has a distributor and will probably play Seattle this fall. Don't wait for that. If Strangers tells us anything, it's that we should always act immediately for the sake of love. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Uptown: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 2.)AlexandraSpare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings. Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out from a transport train into a dusty station — presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs, and faint melody. Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s, and is escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there's a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it's less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra's trip to the front, he illuminates its reality. (NR) J. HOBERMAN SIFF Cinema: 4:30 p.m. (Also: 7 p.m. Thurs., June 5.)Call Me TroyThis routinely told but uplifting documentary chronicles the life of Rev. Troy Perry. Back in the '60s, the priest was the first man to preach openly to the gay community. He offered a simple but life-changing message: God loves you, too. Perry tried for a time to be straight—marrying his high-school sweetheart and fathering two children—while leading the church in rural Georgia his family had attended for generations. But as the film relates, Perry soon realized his true sexuality, was booted out of the church, run out of town, and became suicidal. "They say You hate me," Perry remembers praying during one of his darkest hours. "All I ask is You don't bother me and I won't bother You." No such luck. God spoke to him shortly thereafter, as Perry explains, and directed him to start his own church. In Los Angeles, Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968 and performed the first ever same-sex wedding in the U.S. a year later. Director Scott Bloom doesn't have to reach too hard for your heartstrings; Perry's inspirational life story is enough. (NR) AIMEE CURL Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. (Also: Egyptian, 4 p.m. Thurs., June 5.)Island EtudeChen Huai-En's autobiographically inspired circuit around Taiwan will make you want to grab your bike. In fact, I recommend bicycling to and from the movie. It's very much a film about youth, freedom, and transition, as handsome deaf college student Chiao-hsi (Tung Ming-hsiang) pedals the coastal highway during a school holiday. His encounters form a gentle picaresque: a spoiled, bratty fellow biker; a TV crew making some kind of wacky commercial; a cute backpacking model from Lithuania who befriends him; retired factory workers on a bus tour; teenagers spray-painting a seawall. There's not much more plot than the mileposts he passes. But without stating as much, Island Etude is a portrait of Taiwan, an impressionistic weeklong survey of life on several rungs of society, as seen through the open eyes of Chiao-hsi. The film is a journal of sorts, filled with sketches of kindness and short, meaningful conversations. Unsurprisingly, given that Chen has been a cinematographer for Hou Hsiao-hsien (A City of Sadness, etc.), this travelogue is often gorgeous in an unfussy sort of way. There's a kind of restlessness to each frame, not a static magazine pictorialism. "Something you don't do now, you'll never do," the student says in one exchange. That's the spirit of the film—keep moving, take notes, and make sense of them later. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. (Also: 4 p.m. Wed., June 3.)MagnusMagnus (Kristjan Kasearu) is a handsome Estonian boy, but a lung condition—no wonder, he's always smoking—leads his unloving parents to believe he'll die before he's 16. But, surprise, Magnus lives longer than expected—too long for his tastes. After recovering from an intentional OD, he goes on vacation with his formerly neglectful, yet endearing and even funny, father (Mart Laisk), who's determined to cure his son of suicidal tendencies. While the setup here might send you racing against time to leave the theater, Magnus is powerfully executed by director Kadri Kõusaar. Both lead actors painstakingly portray emotions "based on true events." Their camera presence is boosted by Polish cinematographer Pawel Sobczyk, whose misty scenes with odd angles give the film just the uncanny, philosophical feel it needs. Be warned, however, that Laisk's long, unwelcome, late-film soliloquy presents a nearly fatal road bump in the picture. (NR) JOSHUA LYNCH Uptown: 7 p.m. (Also: SIFF Cinema, 9:30 p.m. Wed., June 4.)Night TideThe 1961 feature debut by the recently deceased Curtis Harrington, whose full filmography begs attention (The Killing Kind!), gets a welcome restoration. A proto-avant-gardist in 1940s L.A., Harrington forays here into cheapjack Tourneur atmospherics, under the auspices of Roger Corman's production company AIP. A sailor on leave chats up a dark, ethereal girl on the amusement pier. She has a reputation on the boardwalk: Previous boyfriends came to bad ends; hired to play mermaid at the sideshow, there's a suspicion that she has actual mythical origins. For his lead, Harrington hired friend Dennis Hopper, his career then in TV-Western purgatory. He's disarmingly gentle and serious here, in sync with the film's sad quietude—the washed-out seediness of the Venice Beach locales is not soon forgotten. (NR) NICK PINKERTON SIFF Cinema: 7 p.m.You, the LivingThe title is from Goethe: "Rejoice, you the living...ere dark Lethe's sad wave wetteth thy fugitive foot." A trolley car in the film bears that underworld river's name for a destination, and everybody in this film by Swedish director Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor) is destined to go there someday. But while they're still alive, he treats us to vignettes of these inherently hilarious humans, most of them caught in midstare by a becalmed camera and the greenish tinge of a world's last days. A disgruntled woman chases off her boyfriend and sits on a park bench, singing and complaining. A man recalls a nightmare in which he is condemned to fry for a tablecloth trick. My favorite vignette is one near the end, as a forlorn girl dreams of being a newlywed in her kitchen as the scenery mysteriously rolls by outside and wellwishers stop her and her guitar-playing groom for a sendoff on, as it turns out, a train. (NR) FRAKO LODEN Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. (Also: Pacific Place, 4 p.m. Fri., June 6.)Mr. BigNina Shapiro's related news feature this week tells you all you need to know about the current appeal status of the notorious 1994 Rafay-Burns murder in Bellevue. It's occasioned by this new documentary by the former TV-journalist sister of Sebastian Burns, Tiffany Burns, who will likely be appearing at SIFF in support of her film. Don't expect her, however, to argue that Canadian citizen Sebastian is innocent of bludgeoning to death the three family members of Atif Rafay. She's a little too smart for that. Instead, Mr. Big attacks the supposedly coercive method by which the RCMP extracts confession by duress—the "Mr. Big" sting operation. Her film includes police videotape of the two (now convicted and imprisoned) killers as they shoot the shit and drink beers with the undercover Mounties who presented themselves as petty Vancouver mafiosi. A weird, breathtakingly unbalanced documentary, like something cut in half from one of the two comprehensive reports on CBS, with dissenting voices erased, Mr. Big omits all the presumably more damaging surveillance tapes. It completely elides the family dynamics of the Burnses—the son, who fancied himself a Nietzschean übermensch, wanting to be a filmmaker; the daughter who became a filmmaker to exonerate her brother. (Were they raised on VHS from the womb?) And the movie-centricity of the case becomes even more of a psycho-vortex. For an alibi, Rafay and Burns, a pair of college-age dudes, said they were out seeing The Lion King at the Factoria Cinemas. The Lion King? WTF? And the whole reason their crypto-confession was taped in Vancouver was because they were hoping to raise money to make their dream script, The Great Despisers, about a couple of Leopold-and-Loeb types falsely charged with murder. Then, freakier still, at their King County Court sentencing in the fall of 2004, Sebastian Burns delivered to the court what he thought was some kind Brando-Clift-Jimmy Stewart-worthy soliloquy, not a mea culpa at all (unlike Rafay), which lasted almost an hour. I would pay money to see the entire thing unedited, but the few seconds Tiffany Burns excerpts in Mr. Big (i.e., the least damning few seconds) are beyond bizarre—a tall, smart, well-spoken, and almost handsome (i.e. Canadian) guy delivering a stiff-armed, badly blocked, amateur theatrical version of, well, what he must've considered to be the Oscar-winning final scene from The Great Despisers. "With all due respect to jurors, the verdict was wrong," he says. "We've been tried and we've been convicted for something we didn't do." You can just tell—and all bad actors telegraph their thoughts this way—that he expects the court to burst into applause, the jurors to weep at their wrongheadedness, the cops (led by Ray Liotta) to lower their heads in shame, and the judge (played by Paul Newman), to firmly gavel the room to order, then declare, "This has been a terrible miscarriage of justice! I order Mr. Burns released immediately! And, as a form of restitution, I demand that the taxpayers fund his brilliant screenplay. And furthermore, I intend to make him my ward and give my consent for him to marry my granddaughter"—played by Jessica Alba—"who has been so patiently waiting outside the King County Jail every night, singing folksongs and baking muffins for her beloved incarcerated Sebastian." Mr. Big is only slightly less delusional than he is. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 7 p.m. (Also: SIFF Cinema, 4:30 p.m. Thurs., June 5.)

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