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Band's Visit: A Small Gem 

Plus: Bruges buffoonery, Boleyn boredom

Opening

21.Group of brilliant students and unorthodox math prof take on big casinos and win their way into racy Vegas lifestyles. Rated PG-13. At Mill Creek and the Broadway.

MARRIED LIFE.Characters fumble towards their passions leading to a complicated web of deceit, murder plans, love and lies. Rated PG-13. At the Minor.

SAMSON AND DELILAH.San Francisco Opera performs sweeping biblical epic in pure Digital Cinema. First of four SF Opera Cinemacasts, runs March 29-30 at Fortuna.

SUPERHERO MOVIE.Spoof movie takes aim at biggest superhero blockbusters of our time. Rated PG-13. At Mill Creek, the Broadway and Fortuna.

Reviews

THE BAND'S VISIT.Director Eran Kolirin's tale of an Egyptian police band stranded for a night in a seemingly boring Israeli town is an unexpected delight. After having arrived in the wrong town and unable to catch a bus until the next morning, the musicians find themselves at a café owned by the striking, self-possessed Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who offers to find them lodging for the night. Of the eight musicians in the band, we only really get to know three well: Tawfiq, the officious proud lieutenant who leads the band, his meek second in command, who never finished his grand concerto and Haled, the young troublemaker of the group who has a fondness for Chet Baker, and who tries to charm any and all women who cross his path.

As Tawfiq, actor Sasson Gabai expertly plays a man who initially seems like a petty martinet, but reveals hidden depths of sadness beneath his repressed shell of propriety and politeness as he spends the evening with café owner Dina, who's obviously as sad and lonely as he is. When she casually points out to Tawfiq a married man in the restaurant that she has had an affair with, we realize both how bold she is and how starved she is for real companionship. Their soulful interactions and missed connections are the heart of the film.

A more comic subplot follows ladies' man Haled as he tags along on a double date at a roller rink with Papi, a romantically inept young man who's one of the layabouts at Dina's cafe. Here, we're led to expect that the slick Haled will try to poach one of the girls on the date, but what happens instead is much funnier, as he generously provides instruction on the art of love to the hapless Papi.

In that scene and others, the movie recalls the early films of Bill Forsyth in its gentle melancholy humor, low-key quirkiness and in its suggestion that small gestures and lives are just as interesting and vital as big ones. It creates its own little world.

The third strand of the story, which follows the second-in-command and two others as they stay with a couple with marital problems, is somewhat less interesting and wisely it takes up only a small part of the screen time. The way he's inspired to resume his concerto by observing the family's interaction doesn't ring quite true, and it has the whiff of plot contrivance. If the rest of the film wasn't so good, I wouldn't have noticed.

This modest little film is the kind of movie that often gets lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by louder, blunter fare. Only as the end credits rolled by in parallel Arabic and Hebrew over the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra's spirited music did I realize what a rare pleasure it was. It treats the interaction of people from two supposed enemy countries, but there's not a political point to be made, other than one of simple humanism. Incidentally, this was Israel's initial submission for the foreign film Academy Award category, only to be rejected because more than 50 percent of the film is in English. Well worth seeing. At the Minor.

IN BRUGES.Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's first feature is a film that has quite a bit going for it: dark humor, witty dialog and great actors (and even the actors who aren't great are perfectly cast). As in his savage plays, violence is often swift and random, with little sentimentality and plenty of gallows humor.

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are hit men on the lam after a botched hit of a priest in which an altar boy was accidentally killed. They're sent by their boss Harry (a menacing Ralph Fiennes) to the medieval Belgian city of Bruges to hide out until further instructions. Ray is guilt-ridden over his murder of a child and hates the town, while Ken revels in sightseeing. Harry's profane phone rants to the pair are hilarious — he had a fine time in the "fairyland" of Bruges as a child, so Ray and Ken are forced to reiterate how much they love the place. Along the way, Ray insults American tourists and hooks up with a drug dealer named Chloe while warding off thoughts of suicide.

The changes in tone throughout are a problem — it's hard to resonate with the moral dilemma that Ray is supposedly going through when the rest of the film treats death and violence so casually. Though Farrell does an admirable job portraying Ray's inner conflict in the scenes where he's required to, the rest of the film seems to be taking place in a wilder, jokier realm. In fact, the unpredictable comic digressions of the story are the unique and engaging parts of the film: a crazed cocaine party with a racist American dwarf actor, the serial humiliations of a skinhead would-be thug, a mellow arms dealer who does yoga and a Boschian film within a film.

Ultimately the movie suffers a bit from the fact that it's a hit-man comedy — a very good one, but an example of a sub-genre that's pretty played out at this point (10 years ago, pre-Pulp Fiction, it would have seemed much bolder). Even Fiennes' intense performance as Harry too strongly recalls Ben Kingsley's similar gangster turn in Sexy Beast, even to the point of ratcheting up the suspense quotient by not physically showing up until quite late in the movie.

The last part of the film settles into a chase/shootout, and though it ends with a would-be epiphany from Ray, it strikes a slightly false note. McDonagh's at his best at his most heartless and nihilistic, and he shows a lot of bravado and panache as a director. He's not the kind of director who plumbs the depths of the human soul, but is a bracing punk provocateur. Redemption doesn't suit him. At the Minor.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. In dealing with big budget historical costume drama, it's best to throw any notions of accuracy out the window. Even the best-intentioned films have to deal with notions of plot compression, dramatic license and so on. English costume drama is not a genre I have much sympathy for, especially when it deals with issues of royal succession, court intrigue and romance. That said, The Other Boleyn Girl wasn't quite the overheated soap opera I feared it would be, though it was a bit of a slog.

The film is about two sisters, Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) who compete for the affections of King Henry VII (Eric Bana). Their father and uncle maneuver the king to meet Anne, who's the more ambitious and social of the two, but the king takes a liking to the more naive Mary instead and sets her up as a lady-in-waiting and mistress, despite the fact that she's already married. The willful Anne then marries a man betrothed to another without her father's consent, and is sent to exile in France. Eventually, after bearing him a son, Henry sends Mary to the country, and Anne returns with her designs on snagging the king. Ultimately, she bears him a daughter, not a son, so her time is limited and she is doomed.

The problem for me in this kind of movie is this — why should I care? The story doesn't move me. While this might be a quirk of taste, I think the stolid, unimaginative way the story was told was one of the reasons I couldn't work up much sympathy. Actor and television director Justin Chadwick doesn't bring anything very special to the table with this film, and is the definition of a journeyman director.

While this movie is not the disaster that last year's Elizabeth: The Golden Age was, it doesn't feature any actors to match the caliber of Cate Blanchett and elevate it above mediocrity either (Kristin Scott Thomas is good as the girls' mother, but underused). The sometimes dodgy English accents of both Portman and Johansson hamper the film a bit, but Portman's rigid acting style has improved a little — she portrays Anne's arrogance and ambitions well. Johansson does a serviceable job in a thankless role, while Bana is similarly one-dimensional in a one-dimensional role (and shouldn't Henry be a little more ... portly?).

This film is not bad, it's just one of those movies that you'll see and forget about the next day. Those who go to movies just to see pretty costumes might enjoy The Other Boleyn Girl, but the rest of us can stay home and read some history instead. At Mill Creek and the Broadway.

Continuing

10,000 B.C.Cavemen on epic battle quest. Rated PG-13. 109 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

THE BANK JOB.Smart British caper flick, with layers of intrigue. Rated R. 110 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

BE KIND REWIND.A man whose brain becomes magnetized destroys every tape in his friend's video store; the men set out to remake lost films. Rated PG-13. At the Broadway.

BUCKET LIST. A corporate billionaire and a working class mechanic, who have developed a strong bond while sharing a hospital room, embark on the road trip of a lifetime. Rated PG-13. 97 m. At The Movies.

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP. Girls-only road trip turns into nightmare adventure when one girl's police chief father tags along for the ride. Rated G. 86 m. At The Movies.

DOOMSDAY.Dreaded Reaper virus escapes walled off, brutally oppressed community and threatens major city. Rated R. At the Broadway.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR.Dorky teens hire former soldier of fortune as bodyguard, only to find he has his own agenda. Rated PG-13. At Mill Creek, the Broadway and Fortuna.

HORTON HEARS A WHO.Mocked do-gooding elephant attempts to rescue a microscopic civilization. Rated G. 87 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

NEVER BACK DOWN. Teen joins underground "fight club." Rated PG-13. 114 m. At The Movies.

SEMI-PRO. Semi-pro basketball team on the verge of folding is purchased by one-hit-wonder musician trying to fulfill his life dream. Rated R. 90 m. At The Movies.

SHUTTER.Newlyweds investigate scary images in set of photos and learn some mysteries are better left unsolved. Rated PG-13. At Mill Creek, the Broadway and Fortuna.

SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. The Grace family moves into the Spiderwick estate, the home of a dead ancestor, and discovers the evil creatures that already reside there. Rated PG. 96 m. At The Movies.

TYLER PERRY'S MEET THE BROWNS.Inner-city mom from Chicago travels to her nutty family's home in Georgia for her long lost father's funeral. Rated PG-13. At the Broadway.

VANTAGE POINT. Chaos ensues when the U.S. president is assassinated in Spain. Rated PG-13. At The Movies and Fortuna.

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