Reviews are by Phil Coldiron, Mike D'Angelo, David Ehrenstein, Ernest Hardy, Aaron Hillis, Karina Longworth, Nicolas Rapold and Vadim Rizov. More information onthese and other AFI films can be found at afi.com/afifest.
CRITIC'S PICK 13 ASSASSINS Takashi Miike, the most prolifically gonzo filmmaker in Japan (and quite possibly the world), finally decides to sell out in high style — and turns in his most impressive effort since 1999's Audition. With the exception of one memorably nightmarish moment involving a nude, limbless woman writhing in permanent agony, 13 Assassins is just a straightforward, expertly choreographed samurai action flick, albeit with an atypical emphasis on the physical demands of the profession and a healthy disregard for its fabled code of honor. Setup's a bit pokey, as is often the case with Miike, but the entire second half of the movie is one long, kickass battle sequence, at once kinetically thrilling in the Kurosawa/Kobayashi tradition and as goofily absurdist — flaming oxen! booby-trapped buildings! — as something out of Jeunet & Caro. Makes you wonder what Miike might accomplish if he settled down and made just one film a year, rather than his usual half-assed three or four. (MD) (Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m., Chinese)
AARDVARK A blind guy walks out of an AA meeting and into a martial arts studio. Cinematographer Kitao Sakurai's debut as a writer-director stars nonactors Darren Branch and Larry Lewis, whose real-life relationship as a blind recovering alcoholic and his jiujitsu instructor is the basis for Aardvark's first half, an exploration of sensation and physicality, rich with character detail and boldly loose on plot. Then Darren's secret life of crime catches up with him, and Aardvark turns into a full-on noir of all-too-literal blind justice. Narratively, it's one joke (blind guys gets a lap dance; blind guy requests verbal confirmation that he's holding the right person at gunpoint), but stylistically, it's a knockout, with a final quasi-action sequence that bridges the film's opposing tonal tendencies: Euro-art slowness and low-budg, high-gimmick revenge flick. (KL) (Nov. 5, 7 p.m., Chinese)
AMIGO For a brief period in the 1990s, John Sayles achieved a truly miraculous amalgam of lefty political activism and thorny, impassioned human drama. Since peaking with Lone Star (1996), however, he's become increasingly bogged down in dreary righteousness. Set during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, Amigo means to use this forgotten chapter of history to make pointed statements about our current adventures in the Middle East. Trouble is, it does so entirely via earnest platitudes and schematic irony. Somebody needs to stand over Sayles' shoulder at the keyboard and just slap him hard in the face every time he types the word "American." Seriously. Even Chris Cooper, who made his name in Sayles' early pictures, is unable to offer a morsel of genuine behavior. (MD) (Nov. 6, 9:45 p.m., Chinese)
BLACK SWAN Both self-conscious homage to epic backstage soaps and visceral body-dysmorphia horror, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballerina torn between fear and ambition. Nina bests both the ballet's aging star (Winona Ryder) and its new sexpot diva (Mila Kunis) to land the lead in her company's reimagining of Swan Lake, but the casting is contingent on Nina learning to embrace her own "evil twin." Vivid hallucinations — or are they?!? — ensue, involving bi-curiosity, hysteric violence, self-harm and self-preservation. A riff on diva cinema's greatest hits, Black Swan is Suspiria with less style, All About Eve but all about orgasm panic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as Nina's infantilizing mom) splitting the Bette Davis role. Call it balletsploitation: It's a work of art only in that it's pitch-perfect trash. (KL) (Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., Chinese)
BLUE VALENTINE Derek Cianfrance's Sundance hit crosscuts the first and last days of the relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), young class-crossed lovers turned unhappily harried marrieds. A naturalistic (and fatalist) antiromance that acknowledges the evanescence of mutual adoration, performed by vanity-free actors and presented in grainy, deeply saturated imagery that always goes for the painterly over the descriptive, Blue Valentine is surface-oriented to a fault. Williams translates Cindy's coldness into blankness, and Cianfrance's camera keeps getting closer to her, as if her pores were windows to her soul. But the final scene crescendos superlatively. Inexplicably rated NC-17 by the MPAA, Valentine is adult in theme, but what's on-screen is relatively chaste. (KL) (Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m., Chinese)
BARNEY'S VERSION Paul Giamatti stars in this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's sprawling 1997 novel, about the life and loves of the titular schlub, a narcissistic romantic who drinks his way from bohemian decadence to bourgeois autopilot to angry, foggy old age. Highlights of the 40 years sped through in two-plus hours include the mysterious death of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), two unhappy marriages and one great romance, with Rosamund Pike's Miriam. The performances are uneven (Minnie Driver's Canadian Jew accent is the worst, and Speedman often seems to be lost looking for the rhythm of his lines, even before Boogie turns into a junkie), but the central relationship drama is super compelling. Slip it in the A Man and His Mortality genre above the soggy pabulum of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but Barney's Version never approaches the transcendence of the narratively similar Synecdoche, New York. (KL) (Nov. 6, 8 p.m., Egyptian)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes