The San Diego Jewish Film Festival's 18th season kicks off Feb. 7 with a solid collection of features, shorts and documentaries playing at the AMC La Jolla, UltraStars Mission Valley and Poway and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. CityBeat caught a few films ahead of time. Here's what we think:
Sixty Six: Poor Bernie Rubens. He wants to throw the “Jesus Christ of Bar Mitzvahs,” but he's forced to curtail his plans because his neurotic father's shop is in trouble. If that weren't bad enough, his big day falls on another big day—the 1966 World Cup finals. The festival's opening-night selection is very funny and terribly charming, loosely based on director Paul Weiland's own Bar Mitzvah culture collision. Helena Bonham-Carter plays against type as Bernie's mom and Stephen Rea is a sympathetic doctor. (Anders Wright)
Beaufort: As Israel prepares to pull out of Lebanon in 2000, a small group of soldiers is left defending Beaufort, an ancient edifice that has been fought over for almost a thousand years. Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award at this year's Oscars, Beaufort is less a war movie than an examination of what happens to young men on the front lines, facing off against an enemy they never lay eyes on. Contrasting a dangerous, claustrophobic environment with the beautiful scenery that surrounds it, Beaufort is tense and intense, well acted and directed, and since there are no concrete plans for it to open in San Diego, see it now. (Anders Wright)
Orthodox Stance: An engaging shoestring-budget doc about professional boxer Dmitriy Salita, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine. Raised in poverty, Salita began boxing at the age of 12 and faced a series of barriers during his rise in the boxing world. Fascinating for its exploration of the balance between Salita's faith and his sometimes contradictory lifestyle, the film has a calm, meditative quality that highlights the young fighter's quiet tenacity. (Todd Kroviak)
Love and Dance: Chen, a shy, awkward boy born to a Russian mother and an Israeli father, takes dance classes on the sly in hopes of getting close to the teacher's star pupil. A sweet coming-of-age story, cha-cha-cha. Evgenia Dodina, who plays Chen's dance teacher and who appears in three festival entries, will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A. (Anders Wright)
Ticket information and show times are available at www.sdcjc.lfjcc.org/sdjff.
Fool's Gold: Matthew McConaughey. Kate Hudson. Skimpy bathing suits. And something about sunken treasure. In Bruges: Noted playwright Martin McDonagh's dark comedy finds Colin Farrell as a killer with a conscience—a return to the charismatic, small-film style of acting that got him all those big crappy movies. Brendan Gleeson is, as always, great as his mentor, and Ralph Fiennes swears a whole hell of a lot. Please see our review on Page 22.
Taxi to the Dark Side: Likely the best documentary about torture you'll ever see, Taxi delves into shadowy U.S. policies at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, using a young Afghani cab driver who was detained, tortured and killed in 2002 as its starting point. Yes, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) shows plenty of disturbing footage and snapshots, but it's his interviews with soldiers who found themselves doing things they never imagined that are the most powerful. It's challenging to watch, but Taxi should be required viewing for really understanding the torture issue.
Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights—Hollywood to the Heartland: All-around charmer Vaughn leads a group of comedians on a tour bus in this road-trip documentary. There are plenty of profile-boosting cameos from Vaughn's satellite Frat Pack crew (Justin Long, Jon Favreau, etc.) and a disproportionate amount of dumb-ass male bonding, but the movie has heart and is a welcome diversion from the standard mindless winter comedy. Comic Ahmed Ahmed is the stand-out here, but each has a number of (often unexpected) hilarious bits.
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins: Master mugger Martin Lawrence is a massively successful self-help talk-show host—the perfect blend of Oprah and Dr. Phil—who returns to the South for his parent's 50th anniversary. Egos are blown. Lessons are learned.
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Fast Times at Ridgemont High: The movie that made Sean Penn a star. Cameron Crowe wrote Fast Times, one of the ultimate high-school comedies, which stars Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates and many others, including bit roles for Anthony Edwards, Nic Cage and Forest Whitaker, but it wouldn't have been the same without Penn's Spicoli, who needs only tasty waves and a cool buzz to be just fine. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
The Business of Being Born: Like Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions, this doc from Ricki Lake and filmmaker Abby Epstein explores the industrial complex that surrounds the act of giving birth and how many decisions that were once in the hands of midwives and pregnant women are now being made by bean-counters and insurance companies. Thinking about having a kid? Take a look. You'll have a better idea of how the system works the way it does. Screens at 10 a.m., noon and 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at Premium Birth Services, 2801 Fourth Ave. in Banker's Hill. 619-886-9910. $5 in advance or if you're knocked up, $10 at the door.
Anyone and Everyone: Director Susan Polis Schutz interviews parents from different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths, all of whom have a child who's gay. Each parent discusses what it was like when their kid came out and how those varying environments impacted the way they were able to come to terms with their child's sexuality. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Central Public Library, Downtown. Free
True Romance: Man, this was like a pop-culture zeitgeist when it came out. Tarantino wrote it, and this violent, bloody romance hit theaters between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Clarence (Christian Slater) marries the hooker Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and steals a bunch of coke from her pimp, and the two take off for Hollywood to sell it. Who else is in it? Jesus, who isn't? Kilmer, Sam Jackson, Hopper, Oldman, Walken, Gandolfini—even Tom Sizemore shows up, along with Brad Pitt in a sweet, stoned, supporting role. Screens at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Whistle Stop.
Sixteen Candles / Say Anything: For any guy who's ever stood outside a chick's house with a boom box booming Peter Gabriel, or any girl who's had a crush on the unattainable jock, or any dude who felt that in Anthony Michael Hall, the geeks were finally represented onscreen, this double feature is for you. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13 at The Pearl Hotel. Free
The Eye: Ah, the lucrative Japanese-horror-film-remake market. Jessica Alba is a ridiculously hot blind violinist who gets new corneas. So, she can see, which rules, but soon she starts seeing all kinds of frightening otherworldly shit, which sucks. Alessandro Nivola is her ridiculously hot doctor, and Parker Posey picks up a paycheck.Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both World Concert 3-D: Like porn for 'tweens. Or maybe crack. Or porn on crack. For 'tweens. In 3-D. Yeah, that's nasty.
Nanking: Wrenching documentary about the Japanese occupation of the onetime Chinese capitol, famously brought to light in Iris Chang's 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking. Not for the faint of heart but an important history lesson.Over Her Dead Body: Kate (Eva Longoria Parker) is denied her desperate-housewife status when she is crushed by an ice sculpture on her wedding day. So she comes back to haunt her ex-fiancé, Henry (Paul Rudd), and his new love interest, Ashley the psychic (Lake Bell). Sounds bad? It is. It's a romantic-comedy with neither romance nor comedy.
Strange Wilderness: Adam Sandler is the executive producer of Strange Wilderness, which stars Steve Zahn as the new host of a flailing nature show on the verge of cancellation—so zahn and his sidekick Allen Covert go after Bigfoot. Funnymen Jeff Garlin, Justin Long and Ernest Borgnine bait the trap, but, really, no nature show would be canceled, what with the writers strike and all.
How She Move: The latest entry in the fast-growing, surprisingly profitable romantic-inspirational urban-dance genre. After her kid sister O.D.s, Raya (Rutina Wesley) returns to her old 'hood to try to come up with her med-school tuition. Student loans being what they are, she opts for step-dancing competitions.
Meet the Spartans: This! Is! Satire! The latest chintzy spoof, Spartans is from the team that brought you Scary Movie, Date Movie and Epic Movie. With that pedigree, this film is certain to be a joke, but not the good kind. That said, we can't substantiate the claim, ‘cause it's not screening for press. Go figure.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (the second film in the franchise) was one of the first entries in the hard-R ultra-violent category of the '80s. And now, more than 20 years later, the latest installment, which features our favorite vet taking on, uh, Burma, ups the violence quotient. These human-rights violations aren't for the faint of heart. Or stomach.
U2 3D: Sure, it hits all the concert-film clichés, but U2 does those clichés better than anyone, and the technology and giant IMAX screen puts you right in the concert—both in the front row and on the stage—in a way you've never experienced, giving you a real sense of what it's like to play to a stadium full of people. It's hard not to get caught up in “Beautiful Day” or “With or Without You,” but if you're allergic to Bono, stay away, because he'll be right there, large as life, and you can't reach out and smack him.
Untraceable: Dude puts up a killer blog—literally. It's a thriller about a serial killer who puts his victims online—the more people who tune in to watch, the quicker he kills them, and, of course, he's untraceable. Only a hot detective (Diane Lane) can figure it out, so the bad guy starts to flame her. As if parents weren't already freaked out about MySpace.
27 Dresses: Katherine Heigl is the perpetual self-sacrificing bridesmaid, driven to the edge when her self-absorbed sister (Malin Akerman) hooks her all-around-great-guy boss (a puffy Ed Burns), for whom she's pined for years. At the same time, reporter Kevin (James Marsden) picks up on her story as his ticket off the wedding beat. Heigl and Marsden are charming enough to keep it fun, even if Burns phones it in. Prospective husbands beware: this is a simple, inoffensive chick-flick for chicks into weddings.
Cassandra's Dream: For the third film in a row, Woody Allen returns to London, shooting another awkward crime comedy about a pair of brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor), whose uncle (Tom Wilkinson) turns them to a life of crime in order to solve their mounting debts. But things go south, violence begets violence, brother turns on brother. Maybe they should have just gone for a consolidation loan.
Cloverfield: The Big Apple looks so tasty that a giant monster hauls itself out of the ocean to take a serious bite. One of the most anticipated films of '08, Cloverfield is produced by Lost/Alias honcho J.J. Abrams and is shot exclusively from the POV of hand-held video cameras of people on the scene. Could be the perfect storm of giant monster flicks.
Mad Money: After her husband loses his job, a woman (Diane Keaton) takes a janitorial job at the Federal Reserve, where she teams up with fellow employees (Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes) to steal a bunch of money. The perfect antidote for all those high-quality award-nominated films currently in theaters.
Persepolis: Yes, it's animated, but there are no cute animals or cars in Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical account of growing up in Iran before, during and after the 1979 revolution. It looks simple, taking its old-school, black-and-white look from the author's graphic novels, and it's so good, so beautiful and so tragic that you might forget you're watching a cartoon. There's a reason France offered it up as its entry in the Foreign Language Film category for this year's Oscars.
There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson's first project since Punch-Drunk Love is easily one of the year's best, anchored by an epic, astonishing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He plays Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-20th-century oilman driven by greed and competition and utterly loathing of the world around him.
First Sunday: Desperate for money, bumbling petty crooks Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan knock off a church with a full collection plate. But after they break in and take hostages, including preacher Chi McBride and current hot comic Katt Williams, they discover someone, possibly a higher power, has beaten them to the loot. Lessons, undoubtedly, are learned.
The Bucket List: Smart blue-collar Morgan Freeman and rich jerk Jack Nicholson meet in a hospital room where they're both battling cancer and become best buddies, determined to live the rest of their lives to the fullest. Interesting first act that quickly turns into an irritatingly goofy travelogue as they hit the road to check off items on their “Kick the bucket list”—like Wild Hogs for the senior set. Did those years on the political sidelines made Rob Reiner soft? He directs, but with no particular flair.
The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie: Talking animated fruits and vegetables that wear eye-patches and say “Arrrrgh” might sound like a great way to spend the afternoon with your kids. But be forewarned—these veggies spread the word of Jesus.
The Orphanage: Produced by Guillermo del Toro of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy fame, this first-time feature from director J.A. Bayona falls back on some horror-movie standards but is so well-made and so darn creepy that you won't care. Laura (Belén Rueda) returns with her husband and son to the orphanage where she was raised, only to discover that some spooky stuff went down since her adoption, and some of her childhood friends might still be hanging around.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: So, acclaimed American painter Julian Schnabel makes a movie in French about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French edition of Elle who, following a stroke, can only communicate by blinking his left eyelid. And it's really, really good. Gorgeous to look at and heartbreaking to experience, The Diving Bell gets deep into the psyche of Bauby, who ended up writing his memoirs one letter at a time. The film features an extraordinary performance from Mathieu Amalric as Bauby and earned Schnabel Best Director honors at Cannes.
Charlie Wilson's War: What lazy filmmaking. There's no sign of the Mike Nichols we know and love, Aaron Sorkin's usually crisp dialogue is inane, Julia Roberts sucks and everyone's trying to skate on Tom Hanks' trademark charm. Sure, he's fun as the party-go-lucky congressman who spearheaded funding the Afghani resistance back in the '80s, but Charlie's only saving grace is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who runs the entire picture from behind the scenes as a veteran covert operator.
The Kite Runner: This is the picture that forced the studio to relocate its two child stars and their families. It's a terrific story, dealing with the childhood friendship of two Afghani boys, Amir and Hassan, and the terrible traumas that tear them apart. Based on the best-selling novel by UCSD grad Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner follows Amir's return to his homeland after the Russians have left and the Taliban have taken over. Serious weeper, sure, but director Marc Forster makes it far more sentimental than it needs to be.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets: Nicolas Cage and his band of merry men and hot chicks sort out who's buried in Grant's tomb.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Tim Burton teams up once again with Johnny Depp and longtime girlfriend Helena Bonham-Carter to goth up Sondheim's classic musical. Depp is the barber himself, slashing throats left and right and working with his landlady to grind the remains into meat pies, all in the hopes of eventually getting revenge against Alan Rickman. Woe be to anyone who stands in his way, including Sacha Baron Cohen. None of the principals have great singing voices, but the movie looks so good that you might not care.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Jason Lee is Dave Seville, the man attempting to keep computer-animated Alvin, Simon and Theodore from engaging in their typical wacky chipmunk antics. The bad news: If you have kids, chances are they'll whine until you take 'em to see it. The good news: It's only 90 minutes long.
I Am Legend: The latest take on Richard Matheson's novel turns Will Smith into Robert Neville, a brilliant military scientist who is also the last man in New York City, not counting the untold hordes of vampire-like people who were infected by an errant cure for cancer. Some of the scenes of an empty Big Apple are amazing, but the movie chops out Matheson's dark, nihilistic vision and turns Neville, always an Everyman dealing with extraordinary circumstances, into a superdude with serious pecs. Still, if you've got to spend an hour watching one guy on screen, it might as well be Smith, who's terrific until he finally has company.
Juno: Fizzy and enjoyable, the year's best feel-good film centers, surprisingly, on an unwed pregnant teen. That'd be Juno (Ellen Page), who decides to give her baby to a yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) and toy with her good friend and the father of her child, Paulie Bleeker (an excellent Michael Cera). With sharp dialogue from stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody and solid direction from Jason Reitman, Juno is a solid, if inoffensive, triumph.
Atonement: Though they've gone out of their way to make Atonement look like a generic period romance, Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's shatteringly good novel is crisply directed, gorgeous to look at and terribly well-acted by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley as a star-crossed couple whose future is taken from them when Knightley's younger sister misinterprets something she sees and later turns McAvoy's Robbie in for a crime he did not commit. The buzz has been about the six-minute tracking shot on the war-strewn beaches of Dunkirk, but the real heat is between the two leads.
Enchanted: A deconstructed Disney cartoon, Enchanted, which stars Amy Adams as an animated princess turned to real life on the streets of New York, is far more enchanting than its premise. Grey's Anatomy's McDreamy co-stars, along with Prince Charming James Marsden of X-Men fame.
No Country for Old Men: Their first decent film since Fargo, No Country is a Coen Brothers masterpiece and perhaps the best picture of '07. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the story centers on a good ol' boy (Josh Brolin), an aging county sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), a unstoppable psychopathic killer (Javier Bardem) and a valise thick with drug money. Tight, taut, challenging and brutal, it just gets better with repeated viewings.
Into the Wild: Sean Penn takes on John Krakauer's book with Emile Hirsch as Alexander Supertramp, the young man formerly known as Chris McCandless, who left his suburban family behind in the early '90s and took to the road, eventually making his way to an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Penn makes Hirsch a little too much of a Christ figure, but the supporting cast is great, especially Hal Holbrook in the best role of his career.
The Savages: A terrific movie about being forced to finally grow up. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, siblings forced to put their nasty, aging father (Phillip Bosco) in a nursing home and come to terms with each other. Superb acting, a fine script and direction from Tamara Jenkins, and an ending that will leave some cool and others inspired.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: No, it's not a time warp—the love-it-or-hate-it camp classic continues its midnight run in its 37th year of release. When the lead character of the film is a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you know you're in for some seriously trashy viewing. And, of course, this is the one movie where you want the audience shouting at the screen. Screens Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.
Fridays at the Fleet: Sea Monsters, The Living Sea and Mysteries of Egypt are some of the rotating films shown each Friday at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center's IMAX theater where, for only $7.50, you can catch four flicks. Sure, it's more Discovery Channel than Transformers, but the Fleet's enormous old-school dome screen is way cool, and some of the talent—narrators like Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp—is impressive. You might find yourself as mesmerized as the little kiddies sitting around you. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Check www.rhfleet.org for the screening list.