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Capsule Reviews 

April; Beau Travail; But Forever in My Mind; Bye Bye Africa; Charisma; Darkness and Light; First Person Plural; Hamlet; Journey to the Sun; Kikujiro; The Letter; Missing Boy; Moloch; Set Me Free

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April (Italy, 1998)

This isn't the first Italian film to descend into the chaos of filmmaking with a tormented auteur as guide -- think Fellini without the phantasma. The first day on set, director Nanni Moretti, playing a version of himself, bails on making a musical that's been in the works for a decade and instead embarks on a documentary about Italy's tumultuous politics: It could be an epic or a disaster. Add to this the anxiety of the artist's impending fatherhood and you have a gentle satire of the crazy contradictions that make Italy -- the country that gave us both Michelangelo and Mussolini -- a maddening yet eternally sensual place, with the lunacy of politics and cinema thrown in for good measure. (Sura Wood)

Friday, April 28, 7:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Beau Travail (France, 1999)

Claire Denis (Nénette and Boni), one of France's most intriguing directors, isn't afraid to tread on the dark side. Here she uses Herman Melville's Billy Budd as inspiration for delving into the mind games played amongst an insular group of macho misfits; Denis transposes the action of the novel from the British navy of the late 1700s to a modern-day unit of the French Foreign Legion on the African coast. Galoup (Denis Lavant) is the epitome of the perfect legionnaire until the arrival of Sentain (Grégoire Colin), an enigmatic young solder who Galoup believes threatens to supplant him in the affections of their superior officer. His obsessive jealousy sets Galoup on a course that seals their mutual destruction. The film is somewhat abstract and the sheer force of evil that drove the Melville tale is absent. Instead, Denis opts to deliver stunning surfaces -- the relentless African sun, the sheltering sky, stark landscapes mitigated only by an azure sea (captured by the superb cinematography of Agnès Godard) -- over emotional resonance. (Sura Wood)

Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

But Forever in My Mind (Italy, 1999)

Gabriele Muccino's marvelous, magical film follows 16-year-old Silvio (Silvio Muccino) as his classmates occupy their school to protest "privatization" and "standardization." The words are both empty and expressive -- they mean different things to each kid, and the students seek to define their own society, their own identities, without knowing what exactly that entails. During the occupation, and under the heady spell of freedom, they run wild, speechify, smoke hash, and, most important, make out, behaving like the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Silvio learns both to defy and respect his wonderfully complex parents. Muccino adores the anarchy of love and life -- the best trait a filmmaker can have. (Joe Mader)

Wednesday, April 26, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m., Rafael

Bye Bye Africa (Chad/France, 1999)

Called back to his native Chad when his mother dies, director Mahamet Saleh Haroun is confronted with a society ravaged by war and economic collapse. This quasi-documentary traces his journey into a world that barely recognizes him or his disreputable vocation of making films -- "for the whites," as one irritated local tells him. Bye Bye Africa is discursive and overlong, but the central metaphor -- the failure of the country's cinemas as a symbol of the end of its creativity, imagination, and hope -- resonates. An actress in one of Haroun's earlier films makes the theme that "cinema is stronger than reality" explicit when she complains that his film "killed her," referring to a career that ended because audiences could not differentiate her from the role she played, a woman with AIDS. (Gary Morris)

Wednesday, May 3, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Charisma (Japan, 1999)

Disillusioned by his career as a detective, Yabuike (played by the magnetic star of Shall We Dance?, Koji Yakusho) thinks he'll find some peace in a forest. But he blunders into a ruined sanatorium whose remaining inhabitants still cherish their obsessions (including a tree named "Charisma") and into the laboratory of a beautiful botanist bent on killing that same tree, claiming it's poisoning every living thing around it. Swinging from the ludicrous to the apocalyptic, this uncategorizable film asks new questions about the relationship between the human and the natural. (Frako Loden)

Tuesday, May 2, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Darkness and Light (Taiwan, 1999)

This film worked its subtle magic on me while I was trying to keep straight the characters and the circumstances of a most unusual family, whose massage clinic teenage daughter Kang-yi is helping out on her summer vacation. She falls in love with a young boy who's been expelled from a military school, incurring the jealous wrath of another punk who thinks she belongs to him. Taking some tips from acknowledged master Hou Hsiao-hsien, for whom director Chang Tso-chi formerly worked as assistant director, Darkness and Light works by matter-of-fact layering of incident and atmosphere to attain enchanting effects, including one of the loveliest endings I've seen in recent films. (Frako Loden)

Friday, April 28, 7 p.m., PFA; Saturday, April 29, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 7:20 p.m., AMC Kabuki

First Person Plural (U.S.A., 2000)

This astonishing documentary portrays an alien abduction right here on Earth. East Bay director Deann Borshay Liem traces her efforts to uncover the truth about her Korean origins after her adoption by Fremont Caucasians wiped out her pre-adoption memory. Plagued by strange dreams and visitations as an adult, she discovers through documents that her Korean family is alive and well and full of misgivings about putting her in an orphanage. Who is her real mother? She won't know until she sees them in the same room together. Liem's investigation also reveals disturbing facts about the phenomenon of international adoption, which thrives today. (Frako Loden)

Thursday, April 27, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki (showing with Our Silent Traces); Thursday, April 27, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki (showing with Our Silent Traces)

Hamlet (U.S.A., 2000)

Director Michael Almereyda transforms Hamlet into a Bret Easton Ellis novel. At least his film looks better than American Psycho, thanks to cinematographer John de Borman. But the limos, clubs, laptops, and slacker/hip hop duds render Shakespeare ludicrous rather than relevant. Ethan Hawke is good in a tender moment with Ophelia (Julia Stiles), but otherwise mopes or makes like Tom Cruise in full freakout. Liev Schreiber as Laertes is the only actor aware he's doing Shakespeare. Bill Murray brings his idiosyncratic put-ons to the role of Polonius, and the hilarious Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz bellows his Valley Dude cadences over a speakerphone. With Sam Shepard, Kyle MacLachlan, and Diane Venora. (Joe Mader)

Thursday, May 4, 7 p.m., Castro

Journey to the Sun (Turkey/Netherlands/ Germany, 1999)

This boring odyssey by director Yesim Ustaoglu purports to examine the plight of Turkish Kurds. Mehmet (Newroz Baz), whose dark skin causes him to be mistaken for a Kurd, falls in with Berzan (Nazmi Qirix), who is Kurdish. When Berzan dies in a riot, Mehmet decides to take Berzan's body away from Istanbul, back to his birthplace. He arrives there to find nothing left of the town. The movie arrives at nothing as well, although Mizgin Kapazan is very appealing as Mehmet's girlfriend. Their love scene (in which she teaches Mehmet a German phrase: "Ich liebe dich") has a liveliness missing elsewhere. (Joe Mader)

Wednesday, April 26, 9:15 p.m., PFA; Thursday, April 27, 7:10 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Kikujiro (Japan, 1999)

I was pleased to hear reports that director Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi) was taking a new direction with this film, experimenting with a new persona besides the stone-cold killer he has played so often. To my disappointment, he has reverted to his television personality and previous incarnation as a manzai comic, verbally and physically abusing hapless sidekicks and mugging in front of the morose little boy he's reluctantly agreed to take on a trip to find the kid's mother. The relentlessly poignant music and cutesy-pie visual effects (including Kitano's own artwork) make a potentially heartfelt road movie maudlin instead. (Frako Loden)

Monday, May 1, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Letter (Portugal/France, 1999)

Ennui: The Movie would've been a better title for this lugubrious gabfest in which a married noblewoman burdened with goodness falls in love with Portuguese pop star Pedro Abrunhosa. The trouble is that the plot's fulcrum, Abrunhosa (played by himself in a bit of self-aggrandizement heretofore matched only by that other symbol of Gallic idolatry, Jerry Lewis), is an unlikely object of obsessive affection, given as he is to poetic flights of Neil Diamond-esque soul that have evidently stirred le tout Paris to its very marrow (you know he's a hepcat: He never takes off his goddamn sunglasses). Everyone in this movie talks about his feelings, often and repeatedly, like a Gertrude Stein novel but without the verbal economy -- "despair" and "hopelessness" are favorite buzzwords. (Matthew Stafford)

Wednesday, May 3, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Missing Boy (Sweden, 1999)

The story unfolds like a good detective thriller -- false leads, red herrings, sudden revelations, and all -- as an Indian man raised in Sweden returns to his roots to find his subcontinental family. Tove Torbiörnsson's engrossing documentary follows Jonathan Forsman and his invaluable associate, a bighearted, experience-savvy Bangalore cop, as they make their way across the Indian countryside in search of the past. Fabrics, regional foods, and the smell of native plant life jog the protagonist's memory, while blood tests and the layout of particular train stations offer further enticing clues. The brilliant saris and hypnotic ragas of modern India add further dazzle to this absorbing 27-year-old mystery. (Matthew Stafford)

Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Moloch (Russia/Germany, 1999)

Hitler's last days have inspired some strange films -- who can forget Jerry Lewis' Which Way to the Front? with its scenes of slapstick in the bunker? -- but art-house fave Aleksandr Sokurov's Moloch has got to be one of the strangest. The film opens with Eva Braun doing naked cartwheels through a hallucinatory landscape, here the fog-drenched battlements of Berchtesgaden. Meanwhile, Adolf, seen frequently in his undershirt and boxers, is a hysterical hypochondriac, prattling mindlessly to his guests about phantom pains, gastric upset, and his impending doom. While probably the most conventional of Sokurov's recent works, the suffocatingly "beautiful" tableaux and grindingly slow pacing will send some viewers screaming for the exit; others will applaud the film's notion that Hitler is the ultimate proof of the "banality of evil." (Gary Morris)

Wednesday, April 26, 7 p.m., Castro

Set Me Free (Canada/Switzerland/ Germany, 1999)

Movies can be an escape into fantasy, or a guide for the young and perplexed. They're both for Hanna, a Montreal girl enduring a painfully confusing adolescence. Léa Pool's engaging autobiographical feature, set in 1963, assuredly etches a period in Hanna's life that's chaotic but not traumatic: The heroine's loving but screwed-up parents are her bane as much as her comfort, all men except her brother are pigs, and said brother proves alluring to Hanna's first girlfriend. However, since we sense all along that Hanna will turn out fine -- when a teacher lends her an 8mm camera, voilà! the future filmmaker is revealed -- a certain tension is missing. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, April 29, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

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