It's easy to think that Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang's new documentary, is just about China's massive Three Gorges Project, the world's largest hydroelectric dam, which blocked up the Yangtze River and flooded much of the surrounding countryside. But it's really about people, average Chinese people, and how their lives are irrevocably changed by the event.
People like Shui Yi, a teenage girl who just wants to go to high school. But her family is dirt poor, so instead she's forced to take a job washing dishes on a boat that wends through the gorges, catering to ugly Americans. While she's on the boat, her parents are forced to move all their belongings to higher ground because the rancid shack they live in will soon be underwater. Her sorrow at setting aside her life to provide for her parents is heartbreaking, and it's obvious her parents feel horrible about it, but as peasants, they truly feel they have no other choice.
Shui Yi, who is known as Cindy in the film, is the best example of Up the Yangtze's portraits of average poor people in that society, which is often dispassionate and utterly unforgiving, especially toward the citizens who need the most help. The film moves in fits and starts, unlike the river it attempts to follow, but Chang's insight into contemporary culture, though it was made in China, is high-quality.—Anders Wright
Bigger, Stronger, Faster*: Chris Bell's documentary about steroids might give you pause for thought. The director, who can bench-press around 500 pounds, by the way, wanted to know why people, including his own two brothers, are on the juice. The answers he found surprised him. Along the way, he managed to interview Floyd Landis, Carl Lewis, Congressmember Henry Waxman, the dude with the world's largest biceps, a passel of scientists and even his own parents.
Get Smart: Do 20-something hipsters today even know what Get Smart is? OK, primer time: This is a film based upon a Mel Brooks-created spy-spoof show that ran for five years, starting in 1965, starring the very funny Don Adams. Someone, somewhere, decided that a remake would make a good vehicle for Steve Carell—and, hey, maybe it will. Or maybe it'll miss it by that much.
The Love Guru: Mike Myers returns to his first live-action movie in years. This time he's Pitka, an American-born, foreign-raised self-help guru returned to the United States to annoy the shit out of audiences.
Mister Lonely: OK, get this: An American Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris meets and falls for a woman who does Marilyn Monroe. She invites him back to her commune in Scotland, populated by other impersonators, including her daughter, Shirley Temple, and the fella she shares a place with, Charlie Chaplain. It's the kind of thing that could only come from Harmony Korine, the crazy dude who wrote Kids and directed such freak shows as Gummo and Julian Donkey-Boy.
Mongol: It's like the early life and times of Genghis Khan. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year, this biopic is epic and bloody, as young Genghis is lowered to less than nothing. Of course, he then proceeds to kick everyone's ass until he unites the tribes, rules Mongolia and waits for Part 2 of the planned trilogy to be filmed. See our review on Page 20.
The Rape of Europa: Anne Archer narrates this sharp documentary, which had its premiere at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival earlier this year, about the artistic treasures the Nazis plundered during World War II, and also about the many people who risked—and sometimes lost—their lives to prevent Hitler and Co. from getting their hands on even more.
Sangre de Mi Sangre: This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is about a young Mexican immigrant who makes his way to New York City to find his father, only to have his identity stolen. And while he's just trying to survive in the Big Apple, the con man is weaseling his way into his father's life.One time only
CitizenFest Tres: The conspiracy that is Citizen Video continues, pulling together another assortment of short films by local filmmakers for your viewing and drinking pleasure. The fun starts at 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, at the Whistle Stop Bar in South Park. Free.
Wedding Crashers: This 2005 Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson flick ushered in the current era of R-rated comedies. Hey, weddings are a great place to get lucky, so they show up even when they're not invited. Which is awesome, until they get hooked up with the daughters of the secretary of state (Christopher Walken). Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, at the Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
An American Werewolf in London: Remaining awesome in its awesomeness, Werewolf is about two American college students who are attacked by a hideous beast while tromping through the English countryside. One dies, the other—well, he barks at the moon. The werewolf transformations were groundbreaking at the time (1981), and are still pretty damn cool. Screens at 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido. Free.
Sorry, Wrong Number: Barbara Stanwyck is sick in bed when she picks up the phone and hears two men plotting a murder. She spends almost too much time sorting out who they're planning to kill, so when she realizes it's her, it's almost too late. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, June 19 and June 20, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Jaws: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theater, the Ken Cinema shows this first-ever summer blockbuster, which still holds up after all these years. Screens at midnight Saturday, June 21, at the Ken.
Transformers: Got Shia? There wasn't really that much more than meets the eye in last summer's Michael Bay explode-a-thon. The story was pretty weak, the special effects were pretty amazing and if you were a fan, it was kinda cool to see Optimus Prime kick some shiny metal Deceptacon ass. Screens at dusk Saturday, June 21, at the 4S Ranch Sports Park near Rancho Bernardo. Free.
Raising Arizona: Everyone's got a favorite Coen Brothers film. Ours is Raising Arizona, because it's literally one of the funniest movies ever. Nic Cage is a con, Holly Hunter is a cop, and together they can't make a baby. So they kidnap one. And even though it's righteously funny, there's something about the end that's sad, poignant and hopeful. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 21 and 22, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Mr. Freedom: If you've never seen William Klein's twisted, satirical Mr. Freedom, you must get to South Park on Sunday. Mr. Freedom is a seriously American superhero who beats, robs, rapes and kills anyone who stands in his way. When he hears France might go communist, he heads across the pond to represent. Screens at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 22, at the Whistle Stop Bar in South Park. Free.
The Lives of Others: Fans of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth thought he was robbed when that film didn't win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007. And then they saw The Lives of Others and understood why. This sensitive, intense German film takes place in the waning days of the Berlin Wall and depicts a Stasi lifer (Ulrich Mühe) assigned to spy on a writer (Sebastian Koch) and his lover (Martina Gedeck). It is a brilliant look at the responses different individuals had to a stifling political system, both tragic and humanizing. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 22, at Café Libertalia in Hillcrest. Free.
Serenity: Pull out your browncoat. The San Diego Joss Whedon fan club/stalker group puts on a screening of Serenity, the feature-length edition of Whedon's sharp, short-lived show Firefly. The event, dubbed “Can't Stop the Serenity,” is a multi-purpose affair—on the one hand, it's a benefit for Equality Now, so all proceeds go to Whedon's favorite charity. On the other, the faithful celebrate the birthing day of their beloved leader. Scads of cool prizes will be given away and/or raffled off. Starts at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 22, at the UltraStar Hazard Center in Mission Valley. Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.socalbrowncoats.org.
Caramel: This Lebanese chick flick examines five women whose lives revolve around a beauty parlor in Beirut. Yes, it's a little different living in the Middle East—one woman is forced to show proof of marriage to get a hotel room, another is hassled by an overzealous soldier for sitting in a car with her fiancé—but Caramel just shows people in the Middle East simply living their lives. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 23, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
Journeys with George: A wide-eyed young reporter took to the campaign trail with W. for his 2004 re-do. Actually, she's wasn't so young or inexperienced, and her name is Alexandra Pelosi, as in the daughter of House Speaker Nancy. A funny look at the inside of the Bush machine. Screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 24, at Lestat's in Normal Heights. Free.
Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers: Point Loma's Pearl Hotel wants to Fock you out of at least four hours of your time with a double-feature. The Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro vehicle was funny enough, with Stiller meeting the crazy, ex-CIA father of his fiancé. The sequel, not as much, though we meet Stiller's parents, played by Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman. See what you think as you watch them back-to-back. It's free, so order dinner and tip your server well. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Bring out your dead! Geeks still quote this one, almost 40 years later. Screens at 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido. Free. 21-and-older.
The Foot Fist Way: Fred Simmons' (Dany McBride) world falls apart when his wife gets it on with somebody else. Unable to keep it together, he goes on a pilgrimage to meet his hero, Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (Ben Best), an alcoholic martial-arts movie star who ends up making things even worse. It's a small movie, and parts of it feel ragged, but it's clearly something that wasn't made with test audiences in mind.
The Animation Show 4: Mike “Office Space” Judge curates this awesome collection of animated flicks from around the globe. This isn't Spike & Mike (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but it's definitely for adults. Of all ages, anyway. Great storytelling, gorgeous imagery, all of it for a single week at The Ken through Thursday, June 19.
The Happening: The latest end-of-the-world project from M. Night Shyamalan stars an airborne toxin that compels people to commit violent suicide, sending survivors like science teacher Marky-Mark Wahlberg and his estranged honey, Zooey Deschanel, on the run.
The Incredible Hulk: Call it Hulk 2.0, now with 78 percent more smashing. This time around, Edward Norton is Bruce Banner, on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) and trying to find a cure for his gamma radiation poisoning, which turns him seriously mean and green if his heart rate gets too high. Certainly it's better than Ang Lee's ‘03 take on the character, which missed the mark because it assumed that fans wanted to see Banner suffering through his trauma, when what they really want is to see him rip shit up. Hulk has a new foe, too, in Tim Roth, who plays supersoldier Emil Blonsky, who also undergoes the procedure and becomes Abomination (who is—we have to admit—kinda cooler than the Hulk).
The Promotion: Sure, it's billed as a comedy, but The Promotion, which stars Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly as Chicago-area supermarket assistant managers bucking for the same leg up, is far more emotional and tragic than your standard laugher. Still, the two dudes are funny guys, and the script, from first-time director Steve Conrad, lets both of them shine.
When Did You Last See Your Father?: It's the age-old father/son struggle for Colin Firth, who has to come to terms with his father's behavior and their historically conflicted relationship, as his dad (always-awesome Jim Broadbent) suffers from a terminal illness.
Kung Fu Panda: Jack Black voices Po, a chunky kung fu-fanboy Panda who's just as surprised as the legendary fighters he admires when he's chosen to save the Valley of Peace from the brutal snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Panda looks kind of ridiculous on the surface, but it looks kind of awesome on the screen, one of those for-children-of-all-ages experiences. The animation is top-notch, and the action sequences are exciting and, unlike most animated flicks, not impossible to follow.
Reprise: An assured and confident debut from director Joachim Trier about two young aspiring Norwegian writers. It's all about the trials and tribulations, as well as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that come with growing up and trying to express and define one's self through any artistic medium. You could call it “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Writer.”
You Don't Mess with the Zohan: There's been some talk that Adam Sandler's latest vehicle is actually sort of subversive, because it comes complete with plenty of jokes about terrorism and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But it also has Mariah Carey, which kind of cancels out any political overtones. The sometimes-funnyman is a former Mossad agent who runs off to New York to become a women's hairdresser.
Children of Huang Shi: Based on a true story, Roger Spottiswoode's film follows George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an English journalist who escaped the Japanese atrocities at Nanking in 1937, winding up taking care of a remote Chinese orphanage. He eventually walked more than 60 boys hundreds of miles, helping them escape from both the Japanese army, which would have killed them, and the Chinese army, which would have conscripted them. Chow Yun-Fat also stars.
The Fall: It took one-named writer-director Tarsem three long years to shoot The Fall, a gorgeous mess of a movie. A 1920s stuntman (Lee Pace) lies in a hospital, crippled by a broken back and dying of a broken heart. He tells a young girl epic tales of a band of heroes aiming to take down a nefarious emperor, all the while hoping she'll steal him a fatal dose of morphine. There's sumptuous eye candy here, blue cities and incredible slo-mo sequences, but unfortunately, the story—as well as the story within the story—loses its way.
Sex and the City: The Movie: The big-screen version of the hit HBO show. Insert your own “women go cuckoo for this” joke here.
The Strangers: Creeptastic. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are staying at their isolated vacation house when three masked intruders knock on the door and tell them they're about to die.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: It's great to have Harrison Ford back in his trademark fedora, even if the convoluted script feels more like just another sequel than a reinvention. Still, Indy 4 is easy-going entertainment and will easily be one of the biggest box-office earners of the year.
Roman de Gare: The only film willing to take on Indiana Jones, this creepy murder mystery stars the always-interesting French actor Dominique Pinon as a guy who may or may not be a serial killer who is being investigated by a thriller writer as a possible character in her new book. 'Course, if he is a killer, maybe she doesn't want to get too close.Before the Rains: This Merchant Ivory flick, set in the 1930s in India, is the English-language debut of director Santosh Sivan. As a nationalist fervor grips the region, a young man must decide what to do when he discovers that his English employer (Linus Roache) is having an affair with a local village girl (Nandita Das).
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: Disney returns the four Pevensie kids to the CGI world of Narnia, where a millennium has passed since they first went through the wardrobe. Things in Narnia have gone downhill, so, once again, they must take up arms to ensure that Prince Caspian, another Christian allegory, ends up large and in charge.
Son of Rambow: Set in the 1980s in England, this is a charming look at imagination and friendship as seen through the eyes of two boys, both outsiders. Will is a member of a religious sect who has never seen a TV show or a movie. Lee is a rebellious troublemaker who shows Will a bootlegged copy of First Blood. This, of course, blows Will's mind, and before long, the two are making their own version of the Stallone film. But the movie breeds fame and celebrity, and when word gets out at school, everyone wants in on the action.
Then She Found Me: Helen Hunt stars in her own directorial debut as April, an adopted woman desperate to become pregnant. Which is unfortunate, since her man-child of a husband (Matthew Broderick) has left her, just as her talk-show-host birth mother (Bette Midler) has found her. The only upside might be Frank, a hunky single dad whose wife has also given him the slip, but only if she can avoid screwing things up.
What Happens in Vegas: Both Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz are in Vegas when they meet, get drunk and—surprise!—wake up hung over and married. If that's not bad enough, one of them wins a huge jackpot on the other's quarter, leading a judge (Dennis Miller) to order them to stay hitched. Hey, if they can do it, their kids might not be so bright, but they sure will be good-looking.
Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man. Da na na na na Nah na na na na na Nah na na nah! Has he lost his mind? Da na na na na Nah na na na na na Nah na na nah!
Made of Honor: Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey is a good-looking dude who's been playing the field for years. But when his best friend, Michelle Monaghan, gets engaged, he realizes she's the one and agrees to be her maid of honor in hopes of hooking up and perhaps not destroying her happiness in the process.
Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay: The sequel to the surprise 2004 pot-smoking hit picks up where the last one left off. Sadly, Harold and Kumar's trip to Amsterdam is thwarted by The Man—in the form of government agent Rob Corddry, who sends them to detention instead. Most important: Neil Patrick Harris is back. As Neil Patrick Harris.
Baby Mama: Making the jump from writer to SNL cast member to 30 Rock star to the big screen, Tina Fey is Kate, a single executive who hires low-class Amy Poehler to be a surrogate mother. The movie is terribly obvious but has its moments. Fey is the lead, but Poehler steals much of the show. Sigourney Weaver has some nice moments as the head of the surrogate agency, and Dax Shepard is hilarious as Poehler's dumb-ass common-law husband. Oh, and look for Steve Martin's extended cameo. The problem is, for a movie that's about women and babies, none of the women are particularly smart; each makes one bad decision after another, unable to see the forest for the babies.
The Visitor: Tom McCarthy follows up his debut, The Station Agent, with this subtle look at immigration. Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (the dead dad on Six Feet Under) is a burnt-out professor adrift in his life. Things change when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants in New York, and when one of them is arrested and detained, he finally finds something to inspire him. This is another sweet, subtle film from McCarthy, who makes his points through people instead of politics.
88 Minutes: Al Pacino is a professor who spends his off-hours working as a forensic shrink for the FBI, until the day he gets a phone call telling him he has just 88 minutes to live. So he spends his last hour-and-a-half trying to sort out which of his enemies is to blame.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Jason Segel of Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother wrote and stars in this sweet rom-com, playing Peter, a composer dumped by his TV-star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). When he heads to Hawaii to clear his head, he finds he's staying at the same resort as her and her hunky new rock-star boyfriend. Both heartfelt and raunchy, Sarah Marshall has plenty of full-frontal nude scenes—and all of them are of Segel.
Shine a Light: Martin Scorsese directed this Rolling Stones concert film, shot in two nights at New York's venerable, 2,800-seat Beacon Theatre in 2006. Jack White, Christina Aguilera and Buddy Guy all came out to play with them, and the Clintons were in the audience. Man, that must've been a tough ticket.
21: Utterly formulaic adaptation of Ben Mezrich's great little airport read, Bringing Down the House, about the MIT card-counting team that took its act to the Vegas blackjack tables and made a ton of money.
Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk: Robert Redford narrates this new Imax journey, following environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. as he rafts his way through the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River, along with anthropologist Wade Davis, as the two document new efforts to conserve water and restore the river. Music is provided by the Dave Matthews Band. Grand Canyon Adventure plays only at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
The Counterfeiters: Winner of this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, The Counterfeiters is about Operation Bernhardt, the Nazi attempt to counterfeit British and American currency in the waning days of World War II. It tells the story of Jewish master forger Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), who heads up the detail of craftsmen whose lives are spared as long as they support the German war effort, knowing the entire time that if they do their job well, the war will continue on.
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, Grand Canyon Adventure 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.