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The Big Picture 

Week 2 of the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival

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Backstage

(France, 2005)

The hold-your-breath intensity of the opening scenes in this unsettling saga of obsession and identity sets a new standard, and the needle dips only slightly from there. A pop megastar (Emmanuelle Seigner) freaks out a besotted teenage fan (Isild Le Besco) by showing up at her suburban home for a one-song private performance, courtesy of a reality show. Lucie, the teen, tracks down her idol in Paris, insinuating herself into Lauren's hotel room and life. Neither is what she seems — the icy diva is suffering like an adolescent over her latest breakup, while her innocent admirer is a skilled schemer. Backstage has whispers of All About Eve and Cassavetes' Opening Night, with a contemporary focus on what it means to be touched by a celebrity. Seigner spins on a dime from imperious to conspiratorial to cruel, while Le Besco (who's scheduled to attend the screening) gives off a scent that's equal parts feral cat and Hello Kitty. (Michael Fox)

Tuesday, May 2, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Bridge

(U.S., 2005)

It begins like a tourist's IMAX movie about San Francisco with a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge you've seen a hundred times. Then: What was that splash? That was no pelican diving! As the horror dawns, you may recall the brouhaha over filmmaker Eric Steel training his camera on the bridge during the daylight hours of 2004, during which he caught on film nearly 20 attempted and successful suicides. Drawing in the viewer with this morbid seduction, The Bridge is ultimately a powerful meditation on sadness in isolation, expressed by bereaved loved ones as well as those who were dissuaded and even survived. Without explicitly arguing in favor of a barrier, it confirms that our most famous landmark is also, mysteriously, the No. 1 suicide lure in the world, even to those who might never contemplate the act otherwise. After seeing this movie, you'll never look at the bridge in the same way again. (Frako Loden)

Sunday, April 30, 2:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 9:20 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Brothers of the Head

(England, 2005)

This energetic, intermittently entertaining, and utterly pointless mockumentary about a fictitious '70s rock band — fronted by twins conjoined at the stomach — inspires a single question: Why? As a target, the cliches of the rock 'n' roll flick are overripe to the point of Rotten. As for meatier subjects, the filmmakers (whose previous work was the overrated Lost in La Mancha, about the making of an unfinished Terry Gilliam movie) have nothing novel to say about talent, exploitation, stardom, or youth culture. Needless to say, the gang's all here — the calculating impresario, the spoiled musicians, the abusive and sexually covetous manager, and the girlfriend who inevitably derails the gravy train — but everything means less than zero. Only the sly, vulnerable performances of Luke and Harry Treadaway as the brothers, and the unexpectedly strong songs, save Head from being a complete waste of time. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, April 29, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Executive Koala

(Japan, 2005)

Salaryman Tamura, working diligently to import Korean kimchi to Japan, is the object of whispering office ladies more because he's divorced than because he's got a huge koala head and paws. Business is pretty good, until his girlfriend is brutally murdered and a detective focuses on him as the killer. Meanwhile, Tamura can't remember anything, and consults his bartender (a frog) while growing more suspicious about the role of his boss (a rabbit) in the whole affair. This mutant hybrid of corporate suspense drama and cute-animal tale — with a nod to the fad for all things Korean — is more of a head-scratcher than an over-the-top debauch, with a bizarre, convoluted plot that unfolds as the viewer is still puzzling out the furry-animal (not to mention the martial arts) angle. But knowing that director Kawasaki Minoru's previous works are Shrimp Boxer and Calamari Wrestler should make you accept this "psychoala horror" (to quote the film's Web site) on its own terms. (Frako Loden)

Friday, April 28, 10:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Princess Raccoon

(Japan, 2005)

If Suzuki Seijun, the octogenarian outcast of Nikkatsu Studio known for the cultish Branded to Kill, has been consistent about anything in his films, it's his unpredictability. Who knew his next movie after Pistol Opera would be a tanuki (raccoon dog) musical, a Japanese New Year tradition dating back to 1939? True to the eccentric spirit of these extravaganzas, the heroine (Zhang Ziyi) is a tanuki invited from "Cathay" (hence her use of Mandarin) who can assume the form of a beautiful woman as well as that of various objects. Her fellow tanuki are party animals — they dance and sing night and day, without a care in the world. That is, until an evil king sends a ninja out to kill his too-handsome son (a limp Odagiri Jo), whom Princess Raccoon rescues and falls in love with. Colorful and quirky but static and deliberately stagey, incorporating Western and Japanese folktales and posing the Buddhist goddess Kwannon against the Virgin Mary, Suzuki puts his own irregular brand on a reliably entertaining form. (Frako Loden)

Wednesday, April 26, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 28, 2:30 p.m., Castro; Sunday, April 30, 8 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Romance and Cigarettes

(U.S., 2005)

Actor-turned-director is a common breed these days. Some, like John Turturro, should be discouraged before they do more damage. What could have possessed him to let a respectable cast of actors perpetrate this ghastly "musical" nightmare? James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon play a crude working-class married couple on the rocks. The husband is messing with an even cruder Kate Winslet, and Sarandon's three daughters (all played by excellent actresses) take her side when she reports, "Your father went on a beaver diet." You know a film is in trouble when even Christopher Walken can't provide a moment of relief, and "You must think I'm the cucumber in the gardener's ass" is a laugh line. Most unforgivable is the precipitous mood shift by the end, with one perfect moment involving a knife. The scant funny scenes involve Mary-Louise Parker at the piano and Elaine Stritch at a hospital bedside. Otherwise, try to fuhgeddaboutit. (Frako Loden)

Saturday, April 29, 8 p.m., AMC Kabuki

See You in Space

(Hungary, 2005)

A talky look at the precariousness of relationships in a time of rampant deceit and political violence, See You in Space passes itself off as a smart date movie for worldly Eastern Euro twentysomethings. In fact, its veneer of sophistication is closer to cynicism, and its view of male-female dynamics shallow and sophomoric. The intriguing but undeveloped characters include a psychologist attracted to a man locked up for killing his wife and a Russian cosmonaut stuck on a space shuttle while his spouse falls for a playboy Italian magician. A hairstylist befriends the elderly customer she accidentally sliced with her scissors, while a microbiologist pursues his African co-worker. The movie adopts a whimsical tone at the outset, setting up pleasant expectations of a breezy farce. Instead, an air of self-satisfaction and pseudo-profundity takes over, exacerbated by a grab bag of film-school techniques of no discernible impact or meaning. (Michael Fox)

Thursday, April 27, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 8:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 5:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Sólo Dios Sabe

(Mexico/Brazil, 2005)

We're supposed to love the mystical stalker played by Diego Luna in this Mexican-Brazilian love story, but the pasty-faced nerd who steals Alice Braga's passport as a means to force her into a road trip to Mexico City gave this viewer the creeps. It's another "ancient ways are the best" road movie, done in a hyped-up, arty style that uses the old traditions more as props than as inspiration. Filmmaker Carlos Bolado keeps raising the stakes — visually, dramatically, and even geographically. There's no way this reactionary tosh won't be successful: Never bet against the house. (Gregg Rickman)

Sunday, April 30, 8:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 1, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Wayward Cloud

(Taiwan/France, 2005)

The nonstop rain that pervaded Tsai Ming-liang's previous films (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The Hole) has finally stopped; in fact, Taiwan is in the grip of a drought. That's not all that's new: The director has traded his trademark dinginess for gorgeous compositions and has mixed quicker cuts in with his usual long, fixed-camera takes. The story centers on an alienated porn actor and a lonely museum guide who venture into an affair. Their minimalist interactions suggest sleepwalking, while dreamily outrageous and hilarious production numbers reflect the depths of their unfulfilled desire. (So do the ever-present watermelons, touted as a water substitute.) The Wayward Cloud continues Tsai's exploration of lives of quiet desperation and the way people isolate and imprison themselves behind bars of their own construction, but stylistically it marks a major growth spurt for an important young director. Uh, there's lots of fucking, too. (Michael Fox)

Wednesday, April 26, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 28, 9:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

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