LAFF: the Best of the Fest 

30 films to put on your to-do list

Thursday, Jun 17 2010

1428 "We don't know what to do at all." That statement, spoken by a Chinese woman whose home has been demolished by the government without her permission, functions as the thesis of this episodic, verité-style documentary shot in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Setting up a fascinating contrast between the "official" version of events captured by the state media and the rage and frustration of those struggling to rebuild far from photo ops, the theme of power brokers failing to serve people who can't fathom self-sufficiency in the wake of unforeseen disaster hits eerily close to home. (Regal; Sun., June 20, 1:45 p.m., Mon., June 21, 8 p.m.) (Karina Longworth)

CRITIC'S PICK  BITTER FEAST The premise seems like an extra act to Ratatouille: a disgraced celebrity chef (James LeGros) kidnaps a food blogger (Joshua Leonard) who slammed him, forcing a regime of torture and cooking lessons upon his quarry. In writer-director Joe Maggio's delightfully nasty Bitter Feast there are no heroes, only levels of villainy, with two outsize egos bruised in different ways. Once the premise is launched, the film settles down to a simple series of mind-game one-on-ones between the chef and the blogger, each struggling to hold on to the safety of his carefully cultivated persona. Zesty fun for its actors, Feast is at once a sly parody of the celebrity-chef culture spawned by all the cable cooking shows and competitions, and a creepy little chamber-piece. Even Maggio's point of view on blogging captures something unique: Leonard's character likens himself to the Iron Sheik, applying an unlikely but apt wrestling analogy to online provocation. The film's wonderfully wicked sensibility should come as no surprise to fans who notice the involvement of Larry Fessenden as producer and in a small role as a sleazy private detective. Fessenden, recently feted at the Aero, has become more influential and important as a producer and general facilitator of low-budget horror (not to mention his work with art-auteur Kelly Reichardt) than for the films he directs. If Bitter Feast is any indication, Joe Maggio is a name that can be placed alongside Fessenden protégé Ti West as one to watch out for. (Downtown Independent; Fri., June 18, 9:45 p.m., Sun., June 20, 10 p.m.) (Mark Olsen)

(IN 3-D) In no way a traditional, factual documentary, Cane Toads is a lighthearted, funny follow-up to director Mark Lewis' 1988 Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. In deadpan fashion reminiscent of early Errol Morris, we meet the scientists, toad hunters and toad lovers who debate their legacy — or try to end it. Maps, graphics and fake newsreels indicate the toads' relentless westward progress. As one scientist says, "It's become a footrace across Australia. And the best athletes are breeding with each other. We call it the Olympic Village effect." Toad sex, unfortunately, isn't acrobatic enough to justify the 3-D gimmickry. But when a veterinarian squeezes a toxic toad gland at the screen, you may jump as high as Kobe. (Regal; Fri., June 18, 10:30 p.m.) (Brian Miller)

A barely feature-length sketch of shallow impulses. Westerners go to Laos, a third-world country with no free press, spend their money on booze and whores and use their cameras to bring back mementos of their own self-indulgence. Director/cinematographer Malcolm Murray trains his camera on other cameras, collaging the subjective impressions of tourists with his own footage of the locals' daily lives. Vividly colorful and elegantly edited to ambient rock by bands like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You Black Emperor, Murray's imagery is impressive, even if his "interviews" with visitors — often shot in dark rooms illuminated only by the screens of the amateur photographers' digital cameras, their faces obscured, their general cultural and generational pedigrees coming through via their "like"-peppered narration — verge on exploitative. The point — that travelers are so prone to treat exotic locations as blank canvases for their own desires that they can't see what's right in front of their faces — is well made, even if adding an extra layer of mediation is hardly a solution. (Regal; Sat., June 19, 4 p.m., Mon., June 21, 10:15 p.m., Wed, Jun 23, 5 p.m.) (K.L.)

CIRCO "The circus is tough and beautiful," says one talking head in Aaron Schock's documentary on the small, struggling, family-owned Circo Mexico. It's an apt description of the film itself, a riveting patchwork of interconnected family dramas — difficult in-laws, money-driven arguments, the tensions between honoring family tradition and forging one's own path. Schock's camera — he does lovely work as the cinematographer — follows the Ponce family (who've been in the circus biz for more than 100 years) as they tackle the vagaries of a life that's intrinsically hard-knock, all while working toward a final image that's both triumphant and sad. (Regal; Fri., June 18, 7:45 p.m. Sat., June 19, 4:30 p.m., Mon., June 21, 5 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy)

click to flip through (5) Totally blogged out: Joshua Leonard in Bitter Feast
  • Totally blogged out: Joshua Leonard in Bitter Feast

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