For Americans, the open road symbolizes both freedom and new opportunities. Yet the road traveled by the lead characters in Mike Ott’s new film “Pearblossom Hwy” leads only to alienation.

Friends Cory (Cory Zacharia) and Ann/Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) live in the desert town of Lancaster off California’s Pearblossom Highway. Unemployed Cory hopes to be accepted for the reality show “The Young Ones.” Ann may be studying for her American citizenship test, but she secretly engages in prostitution to raise money to see her ill grandmother in Japan. The arrival of Cory’s long absent brother Jeff eventually leads to the trio’s taking a road trip to visit Cory’s long absent father.


“Pearblossom Hwy” is not a sequel to Ott’s “Littlerock.” Both films may feature the same general geographic setting and the same lead actors. Yet the characters’ relationships are different in the newer film. Cory displays no sexual interest in Ann. The Japanese national has little interest in adapting to America yet lacks any real alternatives.

This quiet character study ultimately reveals the spacy Cory to be a good-hearted naïf. By contrast, despite her supposedly better “opportunities” Ann stands revealed as a tragic figure whose only real option is to find a way to adapt.

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The Peaches performance/concert film “Peaches Does Herself” will indeed treat viewers to a sex show and even a rock show. Don’t look for the mainstream understanding of either, though.

For starters, the title proudly alludes to female masturbation. One sees vagina-shaped sets and unabashedly transsexual characters. The songs display an equal lack of sexual coyness with such titles as “Diddle My Skittle” and “F**k The Pain Away.”

The music itself is the equivalent of harmonic sucker punches. Catchy hooks will cause mental beat bopping, yet those hooks will not divert attention from a song’s point. Peaches’ songs are not powerless cries from the heart. Instead, they are musical roars raging against unjust sexual dynamics. The lyrics of “F**k The Pain Away” may consist of continual repetition of the song title. Yet that repetition eventually creates a wrenching mantra responding to heartbreak.

Watching “Peaches Does Herself,” the viewer can understand why she bills herself as an anti-rock star. This performer subverts the tools of a musical genre which usually reveres straight male sexual prowess. SFIFF attendees who want their rock free of fears of commercial co-optation should check out Peaches’ film, as it’s highly unlikely an automobile company will utilize “Diddle My Skittle” for a car commercial.

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The emotional heart of Ilian Metev’s Cannes Film Festival award-winning documentary “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” doesn’t come from saving a patient’s life. Said patients’ faces are never seen onscreen. The real drama comes from worrying whether the film’s subjects will continue to perform their duties.

Over two years, Metev’s film follows a Bulgarian paramedic crew consisting of dedicated Dr. Krassimir Yordanov, unflappable nurse Mila Mikhailova, and driver Plamen. Dr. Yordanov’s rickety ambulance is one of only 13 ambulances serving Sofia’s two million-strong population. Though the viewer never sees the ambulance’s exterior, a trio of dashboard-mounted cameras focuses on the three crewmembers as they contend with the stresses of trying to save lives while relying on defective radios and a frequently jammed emergency phone system.

Metev shows how that pressure does take its toll on the crew. An early scene with Dr. Yordanov includes an image of a man whose job-related stresses have translated to the sight of large cliff-like bags under his eyes. Despite Nurse Mikhailova’s attempts to engage and comfort a child with a broken leg, her glances around the loudly rattling ambulance reveal her worries about the ambulance holding together long enough to reach the hospital.

Though the film is structured as an accumulation of vignettes covering a two-year period, Metev successfully immerses the viewer in the lives of these Bulgarian first responders. That technique pays off by making its final moments particularly heart-wrenching.

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“Much Ado About Nothing” entertainingly weds Shakespeare’s centuries-old words with director Joss Whedon’s modern touches. Like a good wine, notes both light and dark can easily be noticed in this nice adaptation. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, as the feuding Benedict and Beatrice, deliver the play’s verbal and physical humor with solid craft. Nathan Fillion’s uproarious handling of Dogberry’s malaprop-laden speech will convince viewers he’s invented a new English dialect. Whedon ultimately makes Shakespeare accessible for present-day groundlings.

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“Oldboy”’s Choi Min-sik scores again with his performance as an ambitious if self-deluded gangster in Yoon Jong-bin’s slickly entertaining Korean gangster film “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time.”

In 1982, corrupt customs official Choi Ik-huyn (Choi Min-sik) teams up with younger gangster Choi Hyung-bae to profit off a stolen heroin cache. The partnership, which leads to incredible profits as well as betrayals and vicious lead pipe beatings, eventually gets endangered by both the older Choi’s ambitions and the South Korean government’s 1990 anti-gangster campaign. Will Ik-huyn commit one final betrayal to stay out of prison?

“Nameless Gangster” proves a rousing entertainment which offers nice riffs on organized crime as unfettered capitalism gone wild. Whether Ik-hyun is making deals with a former enemy or looking up family connections to gain egress, one can’t avoid admiring his work even as one nervously watches one’s back. Yoon keeps things from devolving into pomposity by including nice touches of dark humor. The frequent beatdowns, whether via baseball bat or even a cane, always feel one hair trigger away. This is the type of good genre film Hollywood has forgotten how to make.

(“Peaches Does Herself” screens at 9:15 PM on May 2, 2013. “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” screens at 3:30 PM on May 3, 2013. “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time” screens at 9:30 PM on May 2, 2013 and 1:15 PM on May 3, 2013. All screenings take place at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). For further information and advance tickets, go to http://festival.sffs.org )