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Film Capsule Reviews 

Chokher Bali: A Passion Play

(India, 2003)

Initially spurned by two young medical-student buddies as a bride, the lovely Binodini (Aishwarya Rai in a remarkable performance) marries another and is widowed within the year. Now begins the traditional ordeal of the widow circa turn-of-the-20th-century Bengal: She's forbidden to remarry despite her sexual vitality, good education (she can speak English), and extraordinary beauty. When she becomes a companion for the mother of one of the medical men, she re-enters the lives of those who rejected her, wreaking emotional chaos. At the same time Calcutta is witnessing political as well as social changes, largely spurred by Western influence. Of the dozens of festival offerings we've seen so far, this one is most qualified to be called a masterpiece. Directed by Rituparno Ghosh from the novel by Rabindranath Tagore, this exquisite and subtly humorous film evokes the melancholy of Satyajit Ray and the psychological complexity of Henry James. (Frako Loden)
Saturday, April 23, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 8 p.m., Aquarius


(Hungary, 2004)

This film about a drug dealer seems to take place underwater, its titular, nameless pusher cycling through an aquamarine Budapest on perpetual call to twitchy, ungrateful clients. Everything is blue and gray in this godless, friendless, parentless, loveless world, established in successive scenes of an addicted prelate, a dying crony, an addled father, and a stoned mother. Even as the peddler makes his Dantean rounds, filmmaker Benedek Fliegauf spins his camera around a scene's locale long after its dramatic point has been made. Fliegauf's style blends the pitiless gaze of a Kubrick with the spiritual quest of a Tarkovsky, but in a world in which a character makes pilgrimages to the hole in the sidewalk made by his wife's fatal fall, God is gone yet absurdity remains. God's absence here is partially filled by the soundtrack's industrial throb, even as the dealer takes on the role of exterminating angel, a weary death pageable by cell. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 23, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Wednesday, April 27, 8:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Dear Enemy

(Albania/France/Germany, 2004)

The ironies multiply steadily throughout Gjergj Xhuvani's terrific fable of Albanian life under the Nazi occupation, but stop just this side of farce. An entrepreneur with a large extended family to support reluctantly takes any opportunity that comes his way, whether it's hiding a Jew who's willing to pay or selling soap to the German army. (In one of those ironies, the Jew helps make the soap.) Beautifully shot with a palette of grays and blacks that evokes both '40s newsreels and the harshness of '70s Eastern European cinema, the film is nonetheless touched with humanity rather than savagery. Xhuvani may have cribbed the way in which men of differences bond during wartime from Grand Illusion and the ending from The Rules of the Game, but there are far worse crimes than drawing inspiration from Jean Renoir. (Michael Fox)
Sunday, April 24, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 30, 1:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 4, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Le Petite Chartreuse

(France, 2004)

A grumpy loner redeems himself through selfless love in this predictable drama by Jean-Pierre Denis. Shabby book dealer Etienne (Paul Giamatti look-alike Olivier Gourmet) accidentally runs down a cute little girl, then takes on the role of her protector and healer as the girl's childlike mom proves increasingly unable to cope. This French film retails a common male fantasy, the one in which men are better mothers than any woman could be (see Kramer vs. Kramer and Finding Nemo). This particular fantasy's topper comes when the beautiful young mother drags Etienne off into the weeds by the side of the road -- for sex, we assume, although maybe she just wants some of his bottomless love for herself. In the last 15 minutes of the movie we learn that Etienne is actually crazy, but by then his culminating sacrifice is under way. This fable can be left in the storybooks that Etienne is so good at memorizing and acting out. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 23, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 26, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 27, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Low Life

(South Korea, 2004)

This terse, fast-paced chronicle of the rise and redemption of a gangster, from petty thug to corrupt CIA collaborator to whistle-blower, parallels the history of South Korea from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Handsome Choi Tae-Ung, having married a schoolteacher, blusters his way through a career as gang intimidator, loan-shark muscle, fall guy for the Myungdong mob boss, and industrialist. Movies are the one constant throughout Low Life: Choi tries his hand at producing films, which are cut up by anti-communist censors, and significant events in both his and his nation's life occur in front of a theater whose posters change Hollywood icons as rapidly as presidents. The elaborate set design dramatizes the street as both a refuge and a trap for Choi, who labors under the double tyranny of government and organized crime -- with the latter having at least the virtue of honesty. (Frako Loden)
Saturday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 24, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki


(U.S., 2004)

A photography instructor (Courteney Cox Arquette) can't pull herself together after her lover (James LeGros) is shot to death by a store robber while on a late-night chocolate mission for her. In a photo lecture to her students, one mystery slide appears depicting the front of that store on that night -- traceable to her own camera. Along with a cop and her psychotherapist, the woman tries to figure out who is attempting to contact her about what really happened. Along the way you'll weary of the bleak blue-tinged lighting, inexplicable crashing noises, spilled drinks, and dozens of cell-phone calls -- not to mention the brittle, humorless heroine. This unpleasant and dispiriting thriller is the offspring of Blowup and ... well, we can't spoil the plot for you. If you're paying attention you'll figure out the "surprise" ending way before the end, if our notes are any indication. (Frako Loden)
Tuesday, April 26, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Pursuit of Equality

(U.S., 2004)

San Francisco's "Winter of Love" -- the brief era last year of city-sanctioned same-sex marriages under the aegis of Mayor Gavin Newsom -- is documented from the inside in this short (75-minute) documentary by locals Geoff Callan and Mike Shaw. Much of it is shot in Newsom's office as various legal defenses for the policy are debated; most of the rest of it takes place in City Hall as couples line up to legally wed. Callan and Shaw film some of the happy pairs, and affectingly cover the two women who had the door slammed in their faces, falling just short of being allowed to marry as the California Supreme Court calls a halt to the weddings. With his pointy nose and head the shape of a slice of pie, Newsom is an unlikely movie star, but he does have an undeniable charisma only partly attributable to his powerful position. The flood tide of righteous conviction raises this balsa wood politician to a commanding height that surprises even him. His fundamentalist opponents, by contrast, visibly shrink before our eyes. (Gregg Rickman)
Sunday, April 24, 6:30 p.m., Castro

Touch the Sound

(U.S./Germany, 2004)

German documentarian Thomas Riedelsheimer sets himself the task of visualizing sound in this follow-up to his 2002 cult hit Rivers and Tides, which valorized environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, a charismatic figure who filled the screen. "Profoundly deaf" musician Evelyn Glennie -- who hears at a reduced level and uses lip-reading and touch to communicate -- is by contrast an intense, interior artist. She's interesting and full of New Age-y observations about her field: "All your music will disappear, yet no sound is lost." While we see Glennie playing for crowds in New York's Grand Central Terminal and at a beach, most of the film is a concert in an abandoned factory improvised by Glennie and guitarist Fred Frith. Frith noodles while Glennie prowls about, searching for good vibrations. This is a fine movie, but Glennie's banging on every possible surface with every possible object is unfortunately less compelling than Goldsworthy's Martha Stewart-like ability to whip up art from some stray ice and bark. (Gregg Rickman)
Sunday, April 24, 3:30 p.m., Castro

Zombie Honeymoon

(U.S., 2004)

A yuppie couple's marital bliss is disturbed when the groom becomes a flesh-eating ghoul. Dave Gebroe's no-budget film falls uneasily between the camp mockery of bride Tracy Coogan's determination to keep to her vows and stand by her man and the cast's playing everything straight. On the first count Zombie Honeymoon isn't funny at all, and on the second the game actors aren't given any character subtexts (let alone text) to play. Coogan's brave performance and a couple of decently imagined scares make this better than skippable, but ultimately we get the zombie films we deserve. While the 1968 benchmark Night of the Living Dead has been correctly anatomized as an allegory of the Vietnam era, and 1979's Dawn of the Dead as a critique of consumerism, Honeymoon is very much of George W. Bush's "values" era. It might as well be titled Leave No Zombie Behind. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 23, midnight, AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 25, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki


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