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AFI Fest, A to W 

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

Wednesday, Oct 28 2009
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*CRITIC’S PICK*  EASIER WITH PRACTICE (USA) True story: A guy all alone in a motel room answers the bedside phone. There’s a woman on the other end. She sounds young and hot and, before he knows it, the guy’s having phone sex with her. But that’s not the end of the story. The woman starts calling the guy’s cell phone every day, and soon he’s having an intense romance with a woman he’s never met. In real life, all this happened to writer Davy Rothbart, who later went on to create Found magazine. In this marvelous fictionalized version by first-time writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the man in the motel is Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty), a timid 28-year-old writer traveling the Southwest with his brother (Kel O’Neill) on a sweetly pathetic “book tour” in which Davy appears at secondhand bookstores to read from his self-published story collection. “You’re the closest thing to a girlfriend I’ve ever had,” Davy eventually tells the woman on the phone (her name is Nicole). It wouldn’t be fair to give away much more, but the weird turns Davy’s life takes always feel emotionally honest, thanks in no small measure to Geraghty’s achingly true performance. From the virtuoso 10-minute shot that encompasses the initial phone call, to a long traveling shot of Davy all but running from a humiliating sexual encounter, Alvarez trusts Geraghty’s fear-and-wonder-filled eyes to tell the tale. This guy, he’s gonna break your heart. (Mann Chinese 6, Wed., Nov. 4, 10 p.m.) (CW)

GO  FIRST OF ALL, FELICIA (Romania/France/Belgium/Croatia) This Romanian drama, about a divorced woman’s aggravatingly delayed return flight to Holland after a visit with her parents in Bucharest, is bracingly astute about generation-gap issues, if overlong in execution. But there’s no doubt that it fits nicely with the country’s other noteworthy films about people trapped by a combination of history, bureaucracy, family and personal circumstance. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu screenwriter Razvan Radulescu’s directorial debut (with Melissa de Raaf) features crisp, claustrophobic cinematography and long takes, which both reward and punish. But the performances are excellent, especially Ozana Oancea as Felicia, whose swings from withering looks to short-fuse outbursts and eventually a teary rant — all directed at her sweet-faced but hectoring mom — are heartbreakingly honest. (Mann Chinese 6, Sat., Oct. 31, 1 p.m.) (Robert Abele)

FISH TANK (UK) Late in this tedious slice of public-housing nihilism from British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road), the film’s dejected teenage heroine takes a piss on the living-room floor of her deadbeat mother’s no-good, cheatin’ boyfriend (Hunger star Michael Fassbender), shortly before kidnapping and nearly murdering said boyfriend’s young daughter. Would that any of this came as a surprise. A heavily symbolic white horse also makes several appearances, unhappily tethered by the side of a highway, while Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoot everything in the square aspect ratio of standard-def television, the better to emphasize the characters’ joyless, claustrophobic existence — just in case the title didn’t already make that clear enough. (Mann Chinese 6, Mon., Nov. 2, 7 p.m.)(SF)

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GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (USA) Too twee by half, Guy and Madeline ... suffers from writer-director Damien Chazelle fumbling his blending of artistic influences (Demy, Cassavetes) and cultural references (classic jazz; Benetton hipsterism) as he tells the tale of a young jazz musician trying to reconcile with The Girl Who Got Away. Despite some lovely images (an old-school afro pick tapping against a hand), the film never takes flight as it strains to charm the audience. Real-life jazz musician Jason Palmer (Guy) is a talented trumpeter but a wan screen presence, while some of the musical sequences (particularly a tap-off at a multiculti hipster party) are cringe-inducing. (Mann Chinese 6, Sat., Oct. 31, 2 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy)

GO  THE HOLE (USA) Like his earlier Gremlins, Explorers and Small Soldiers, director Joe Dante’s latest unfolds in one of those placid, Midwestern anytowns where, in the sci-fi and horror classics of the 1950s, body snatchers and other strange invaders regularly descended. Here, the aberrations come from below rather than above — chiefly, from a basement pit in a suburban home newly occupied by a single mother and her two sons. Once uncovered, the hole gives rise to the deepest fears of those who peer into it, a bottomless id of sorts that allows Dante (making his 3-D debut) to envision all manner of horrors, from the purely abstract to the terrifyingly concrete. And when, in the film’s final act, we finally plunge down the hole ourselves, the result is some of the most expressionistically beautiful filmmaking of Dante’s career — a Caligarian funhouse of long shadows, exaggerated perspectives and things that go bump in the night. (Mann Chinese 6, Sat., Oct. 31, 7 p.m.)(SF)

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