Let us now praise should-be famous men and women: The Amber Production Team from Newcastle was established in 1968 and has been quietly making films about the people and problems of England's northeastern coast ever since. Along with Ken Loach, the collective serves as the conscience of British cinema (needed now, in these doublespeak times of "New Labour," as much as ever)--and with Like Father, they've fashioned a work of profound humanism. As moving as it is politically trenchant, as grounded in the gritty details of day-to-day life as it is universal in its "sins of the father, visited upon the sons" theme, the film looks at three generations of Elliots: crotchety 70-year-old ex-miner Arthur (Ned Kelly), who resists a council plan to move him off his allotment; Arthur's portly, besieged 40-year-old musician son Joe (Joe Armstrong), whose wife throws him out with some justification; and Joe's 12-year-old son Michael, the ultimate victim of the flawed adults around him. What the Amber team has done could serve as a template for humanist filmmakers everywhere: They manage to open a window onto a hitherto unseen way of life, illuminating the peculiarities, foibles, and quiet talents of a deeply human group of characters in the process. Bravo. --Jack Vermee
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 3:30 p.m.
More like an Afterschool Special than cinema, this latest feature by former Minnesotan Peter Markle (The Personals) qualifies as wholesome family fare in the most predictable sense. In an unnamed Canadian Maritime province, Ford Lofton (Gabriel Byrne) is a stoic lobster trapper trying to raise two daughters after their mother is killed in a horse-riding accident. One dark and stormy night, preadolescent Virginia (Lindze Letherman) helps to deliver the foal of the horse responsible for her mother's death (not surprisingly, Virginia names the foal Stormy--see what I mean by predictable?), and an obsession is born. What follows--Virginia comes to terms with grief, goes against her father's wishes by raising the horse on the sly, deals with the obnoxious rich boy whose family actually owns the animal, and prepares for the big race--isn't really all that bad; it's just completely devoid of interest for anyone over the age of 12. Markle does manage to film the Maritime locations evocatively, giving the movie a nice sense of place--even though he doesn't bother to let us know where that place actually is. --Jack Vermee
Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 5:00 p.m.
Directed by MCAD graduate Liza Davitch, this bleak and intimate documentary spotlights a Minsk family that unhappily proves Tolstoy correct amid post-Soviet squalor and discontent. The central conflict is between Tara and her daughter Nastia, whose disdain for each other's taste in men would seem to have more than a little to do with the glaring similarity of their romantic choices. Tara despises Sleva, a shifty shyster who's convinced that his ill-defined moneymaking schemes are the surest way to succeed in the new environment. And Nastia loathes her stepfather Igor: Bearded, aging, charismatic, and sly, he struts through the frame, guitar slung over his back, embodying the ultimate nightmare of any father who has ever forbidden his daughter to date a musician. The film rides the irony of its setting a little hard: Victory Square was once a monument of state-sponsored luxury where notables like Tara's actress mother were honored; now it looks grainy and washed-out, a few paychecks above a slum. But the candor of the people here is striking. Unlike average Americans, these people aren't all that excited about the chance to tell their story or achieve a flimsy moment of reflected fame. They speak their minds, it seems, simply because they're too tired to put up a front. --Keith Harris
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 7:00 p.m.
How's that for an awesome title? (Shouldn't there be an exclamation point at the end of it?) Yet this Finnish film is a lot more sober than the name suggests: It's a delicate, romantic drama about three teenagers--two boys and the girl they both love--who are fanatical about bikes. They're not only competitive racers; they're also bike couriers by day. And not the stoner/Phish-head couriers we all know and love, but hard-ass sportos who can't seem to stop exercising, even when they're going on dates. With their perfect bodies and perfect skin, these three are always at the pool, or kayaking, or some such nonsense. As the movie begins, it seems that K (Lauri Nurkse) is the less-adept cyclist, until he beats his best friend Eetu (Tommi Mujunen) in a race, and reveals that he has been secretly training for a year. The two start to prepare together for national competition, while simultaneously falling for the same girl courier (Elena Leeve). Things turn extra-serious when K discovers a heart condition that could end his career (or his life). Cyclomania isn't Breaking Away, but it's surprisingly touching nonetheless, with a sweet reverence for young love and the tenderness of young hearts. --Kate Sullivan
Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 7:00 p.m.
The title appears on the screen as Cher-ish--a perfect adjective, it turns out, for a batty, cheerfully crass, shape-shifting farce that, like the pop star, simply refuses to go away. Director Finn Taylor's followup to the angsty buddy movie Dream With the Fishes (1997) stars Robin Tunney as Zoe, a San Francisco shrinking violet who finds solace in the Eighties nostalgia pumping out of her headphones. A surprise date with the office sleazeball (Jason Priestley) goes horribly wrong when she's carjacked by a dusky stranger, and the ensuing hit-and-run leaves a police officer dead. Zoe winds up under house arrest, a modern-day Rapunzel peering wistfully out of her second-floor window. As the tireless heroine gamely battles cabin fever, the film itself settles into a fatiguing manic-room scenario, barely assuaged by Tim Blake Nelson's gawky, privately smitten SFPD official, who pays weekly visits to check on Zoe's electronic ankle bracelet. The plotting is alternately labored and distracted, and so inconsequential that the last-ditch Run Lola Run-esque beat-the-clock finale plays out with zero suspense. The only flicker of thematic interest--AM-radio obsession as psychopathology--is duly subsumed into a sea of desperate soundtrack come-ons. Bonus (half-)point: title song not by Kool & the Gang or Madonna, but the Association. --Dennis Lim