AFI Fest, A to W 

Our critics' picks - and pans - from this year's free festival lineup

Wednesday, Oct 28 2009

GO  ABOUT ELLY (Iran) There’s something of Chekhov (by way of The Big Chill) to Asghar Farhadi’s gripping melodrama about a group of old college friends on vacation at a ramshackle beach house, mending broken windows and doors while rekindling old friendships and rivalries. The lone interloper in the group is Elly, a schoolteacher invited by the enterprising Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who wants to introduce Elly to her newly divorced friend Ahmad. Then, midway through the film, Elly abruptly vanishes, setting into motion an escalating series of deceptions and disquieting revelations concerning both the missing woman and those around her. Farhadi places a refreshing emphasis on character and story (a rarity in the age of fashionable art-movie minimalism) and draws a very fine performance of Farahani (who was banned from leaving Iran after appearing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies). (Mann Chinese 6, Mon., Nov. 2, 7 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)

THE ANCHORAGE (Sweden/USA) Co-directors Anders Edstrom and C.W. Winter appear to be going the Jeanne Dielman route here, applying a rigorously unfussy approach to an ordinary life in an effort to coax transcendence out of tedium. The filmmakers use long takes, minimal editing and a largely static camera to document the daily routines of a middle-aged woman (Edstrom’s mother, Ulla) as she does household chores, entertains guests, reads, swims and putters around the grounds of a small island off the coast of Stockholm. It’s a pleasure to sink into the rhythms of Ulla’s life, but the filmmakers seem to be straining for a significance that never quite makes itself felt. Good intentions and artistic integrity aside, sometimes tedium is simply tedium. (Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian, Sun., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.) (Lance Goldenberg)

*CRITIC’S PICK*  THE ART OF THE STEAL (USA) Who gets to call it art? More importantly, who gets to see it? Those are among the thorny questions at the heart of director Don Argott’s scintillating documentary about the strange-but-true history of suburban Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation and its legendary collection of post-Impressionist art. The foundation was started in 1922 by one Albert C. Barnes, a sort of art-world Willy Wonka who used his pharmaceuticals fortune to buy dozens of paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, et al., then stashed his treasures away in a Lower Merion villa intended not as a museum but rather a school and conservancy. In life, Barnes thumbed his nose at the Liberty City art establishment (deeming the Philadelphia Museum of Art a “house of artistic and intellectual prostitution”) and placed severe limitations on public access to his collection. In death, he sought to do much the same, via a detailed public trust dictating his wishes — and so it was, until the 1988 passing of Barnes disciple Violette de Mazia brought the wolves to the door. Deeply reported and enormously entertaining, The Art of the Steal picks up the story from there and runs with it, as those who would protect Barnes’ legacy find themselves pitted against those (including such unlikely villains as the Pew Charitable Trusts) who would turn it into a crass tourist attraction. Throughout, Barnes’ own restless spirit seems to hover, wondering if it is still possible for the will of one man to triumph over the fearsome machinations of money and power. (Mann Chinese 6, Wed., Nov. 4, 7 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)

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BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO (Japan/USA) In Japan, people don’t swat away or stomp on flying insects and creepy-crawly bugs; they catch and collect them, with reverence, and an almost obsessive fervor. In this overlong but unique documentary, American filmmaker Jessica Oreck traces the 18th-century roots of Japan’s entomomania and documents its contemporary manifestations, from insect-dispensing vending machines to crowd-filled collector’s conventions. Although Oreck might have done well to trim excess travelogue footage, she and cinematographer Sean Price Williams come upon real beauty, especially in night footage of fireflies and cicadas, and the joy-filled faces of their admirers. (Mann Chinese 6, Sat., Oct. 31, 10 a.m.) (Chuck Wilson)

BELLAMY (France) If you liked his 2007 A Girl Cut in Two, you might enjoy Claude Chabrol’s latest pensée on humanity’s dark underbelly, couched as a murder mystery in which an unwillingly vacationing detective (a very good Gerard Depardieu) tries to unravel one killing, only to get caught up in spiraling webs of deception. Nominally an arch homage to the equally misanthropic Georges Simenon, the movie ratchets up the simmering domestic rage and existential chatter, only to leave us with the tiresome insight that nothing is what it seems. For a film about the opacity of motive, Bellamy is dispiritingly transparent. (Mann Chinese 6, Sun., Nov. 1, 1 p.m.) (Ella Taylor)

GO  BEST WORST MOVIE (USA) Before The Room, there was Troll 2, a nonsensical, in-name-only “sequel” that reached the ultimate low of No. 1 on IMDb’s bottom 100 movies. It’s taken 17 years, but gradually a cult audience has formed, howling at the movie’s inept monsters and bizarre scripting. Former child actor Michael Stephenson, who had hoped Troll 2 would relaunch his career, now documents the cult surrounding his dubious debut, and it’s a riot, thanks to appearances by the still-hammy dentist-turned-thespian George Hardy and the ever-delusional Italian director Claudio Fragasso, who insists his movie is a profound parable. Best news: Fragasso is reportedly working on Troll 2: Part 2. (Mann Chinese 6, Sat., Oct. 31, 9:30 p.m.) (Luke Y. Thompson)

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