This Week’s Movies

Live Free or Die Hard, Parkway, opening Friday, and Cerrito, continuing. Look, if you’ve got a brilliant plan for bringing the country to its knees for your own illegal profits, don’t murder your employees when they cease being useful; the ones you still need will stop trusting you. And if you’re going to murder them anyway; do it quietly; explosives attract attention. As you might guess, Live Free or Die Hard requires an extremely large suspension of disbelief, but it offers fine rewards to those who can laugh at its many improbabilities without giving up on the movie. The stunt-heavy action sequences thrill in a way that Spiderman 3‘s CGI can’t even approach, and on those rare occasions when things aren’t blowing up or falling down, Bruce Willis’ John McClane is still an engaging and likable character, even if by movie number 4 he’s less believable than Donald Duck.

Boogie Nights, Castro, Saturday. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was only a kid when the 1970s came to an end, yet he perfectly captures that time when 1960s’ idealism had turned into decadence and was about to become disaster. Anderson’s modern epic of pornographers with delusions of talent provides us with several heart-wrenching stories, from Mark Wahlberg’s nice, well-endowed, but not-too-bright young man to Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning turn as a porn queen/mother hen. The excellent cast also includes Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. On a double-bill with Rushmore to open the Castro’s Anderson Chronicles series.

The Lives of Others, Elmwood, opens Friday. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates a very intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism and all forms of totalitarianism. An up-and-coming officer in the East German secret police (Ulrich Mühe) receives a plum assignment: Gather dirt on a respected playwright with impeccable party credentials (Sebastian Koch). The playwright’s sin? He’s seriously involved with a beautiful actress (Martina Gedeck) whom a top party official wants for himself. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal. The Lives of Others works on many levels. It’s an indictment of an oppressive government that called itself humane. It’s a study of an alienated human being waking up to the horror of his job (at times, it reminded me of The Conversation). It’s a portrait of a society that, thank goodness, no longer exists. And it’s an excellent and suspenseful thriller.

Annie Hall, Union Square, Saturday night, 8:30. Almost every Hollywood film deals on some level with romantic love, but very few accurately capture the complex, dizzying ups and downs of that common experience. And no other captures it as well, or as hilariously, as Annie Hall. Warning: This is a DVD presentation.

Sicko, 4Star, opens Friday. It’s probably impossible to review Sicko objectively. If you agree with Michael Moore on the subject at hand, you’re going to like the film. If you don’t, you won’t. So let me begin by saying that I’m in favor of universal healthcare, and find the American system of treating the sick a national disgrace. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with unquestioned praise for Cuba–a totalitarian dictatorship without the free press necessary to question government statistics and representations. As a movie, Sicko entertains as it educates, enrages, and rouses the rabble. Yes, Moore could have made a stronger case if he had honestly reported the problems of the Canadian, British, and French healthcare systems while showing their superiority (if he asked anyone what they pay in taxes, it didn’t make the final cut), and if he had left Cuba out entirely. A year ago, An Inconvenient Truth proved that a widely-distributed documentary can shift the paradigm; let’s hope Sicko does this, as well.

Knocked Up, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin (no small feat) in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of heterosexual romance. This time around, a rising television personality with career ambitions (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then eight weeks later discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores how people fall in and out of love, the way parenthood changes people, and the need for both men and women to get away from each other and bond with those of their own gender–all while providing plenty of laughs. For a full-length review, click here.

Bamako, Red Vic, Monday and Tuesday. Better in parts than as a whole, Bamako mixes interesting vignettes of life in modern Africa with a preachy approach to its subject matter that wears you down. The bizarre concept puts the World Bank on trial, complete with formal court hearings, in a residential courtyard in Bamako, Mali. Around the trial, life goes on, and that life is the best part of the film. But as an attack on global economic policy, it’s more of a treatise than a motion picture, explaining what the problem is rather than showing you or involving you emotionally.

Between Two Notes, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 2:40. Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right–it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music–haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Rafael, Sunday, 6:30. Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies–notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all its own. This movie’s final screening in the Jewish Film Festival.

Making Trouble, Rafael, Sunday, 4:30. A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it can delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny–of course, it is–but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special–hardly worthy of the big screen. A Jewish Film Festival screening.