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LAFF 2007, From A to Y

 GO AUGUST EVENING (USA) UCLA film school grad Chris Eska’s accomplished debut feature provides a welcome throwback to a time when American independent movies were something more than “calling cards” for their makers to leave at the doors of the Hollywood studios. There’s nothing flashy or sensational in Eska’s unhurried drama about an undocumented Texas farm worker (nonprofessional actor Pedro Castaneda) who takes to the road with his widowed daughter-in-law (newcomer Veronica Loren) after losing his wife and his job in rapid succession. Nor is there the patronizing “humanism” that can sometimes rear its ugly head when a filmmaker turns his attention to those less fortunate. Shot in Spanish, in and around San Antonio, August Evening occasionally seems rote in its conflicts and could benefit from a slightly shorter running time, but the powerful, lived-in performances and Eska’s keen understanding of the reciprocal disappointments between parents and children make for a deeply absorbing viewing experience. (Majestic Crest, Sun., June 24, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Mon., June 25, 4:30 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)

 GO BAJO JUÁREZ, THE CITY DEVOURING ITS DAUGHTERS (Mexico) The Mexican city of Juárez has developed an unsettling mystery akin to the Bermuda Triangle. Over the last dozen years, hundreds of young women have vanished from its streets, most in broad daylight. When their bodies are recovered, they’ve been tortured, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. Directors Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero take their cameras to both sides of the border, interviewing law-enforcement officials, family members of the slain, and the young women who might themselves be the next victims of what is believed to be a sophisticated ring of powerful men . . . or possibly a band of violent, low-level drug dealers. The filmmakers broaden the dialogue to include the issues of immigration, poverty and exploitation that shroud the women’s lives. But it’s their use of home video of one young woman’s quinceañera to flesh out her life that turns a statistic into a human being and becomes the film’s real source of power. (Landmark Regent, Fri., June 22, 4:45 p.m., and Sat., June 23, 10:15 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy)

BILLY THE KID (USA) Equal parts empathic portraiture and naked exploitation, casting director Jennifer Venditti’s first documentary, which follows a troubled Maine teenager from home to school and back via his short-lived romance with a fellow student, drapes a wired mike over the poor boy and calls itself vérité. Nonetheless, Billy — smart, articulate and heartbreakingly lonely — is a fascinating example of a kid who, unable to protect his mother from an abusive husband, grows up with a massive knight complex and a little problem with anger management. So invested is Venditti in showing him to be akin to the rest of us that she skates blithely over the interesting news that, winsome or not, he likes to read about serial killers. (Landmark Regent, Sun., June 24, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Thurs., June 28, 5 p.m.) (Ella Taylor)

BLAME IT ON FIDEL (France) A perfect movie for those who like their sentimentality hard-boiled and their politics all runny and soft, the first dramatic feature directed by Julie (daughter of Costa) Gavras stars the enchanting Nina Kervel-Bey as a precocious Parisian 9-year-old whose idyllic bourgeois childhood gets twisted inside-out when her parents turn Commie and start making surreptitious trips to Chile to aid in the Allende revolution. All seen through a child’s wide, disbelieving eyes, Blame It on Fidel can’t quite decide if it wants to lament the death of revolutionary ideals or to satirize the folly of a political movement that would accuse Mickey Mouse of being a fascist icon. Only this much is for sure: From the relentless close-ups on Kervel-Bey’s adorable mug to the bouncy strains of Armand Amar’s musical score, Gavras’ movie wants you to really, really, really like it. (Billy Wilder Theater, Wed., June 27, 5 p.m.; Landmark Regent, Thurs., June 28, 7:30 p.m.) (SF)

BUILD A SHIP, SAIL TO SADNESS (U.K.) A film one wants to love, but can’t, this deadpan comedy tracks the poignant, hapless efforts of Vincent (co-writer and musical composer Magnus Aronson), who drives about the hills and dales of the Scottish Highlands on his moped, trying to drum up support for his dream of creating a traveling disco-in-a-mobile-home. There are some marvelous scenes early on, as when Vincent goes caravan shopping, but writer-director Laurin Federlein undercuts the film’s momentum with long, repetitive takes of his quixotic hero riding through the empty countryside. Somewhere inside this 65-minute film is a terrific short. (Italian Cultural Institute, Sat., June 23, 10 p.m. and Tues., June 26, 4 p.m.) (Chuck Wilson)

 GO  CAT DANCERS (USA) In the 1950s and ’60s, Ron and Joy Holiday became world-renowned as acrobatic ballet dancers, eventually adding lions and tigers to their act. In 1988, they took on a young protégé named Chuck Lizza, who became a lover to both Ron and Joy. Documentarian Harris Fishman lets Ron tell the trio’s respective life stories, up to the series of tragedies that destroyed everything. Fishman is reliant on Ron’s viewpoint to a fault — not one friend or co-worker appears to testify to this 14-year love triangle. That makes for a film with a nuance-free focus, but a story that can’t quite be resisted. (Majestic Crest, Sat., June 23, 10 p.m., and Mon., June 25, 5 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., July 1, 7:30 p.m.) (CW)

 

 GO  THE CHAMPAGNE SPY (Germany/Israel) Nadav Schirman’s documentary tells the story of Ze’ev Gur Arie, a Mossad agent posing as ex-Nazi millionaire playboy “Wolfie” Lotz, who infiltrated a group of German scientists living in Egypt. (Part of his cover was that he was “uncircumcised.”) Although the filmmakers take pains to set the political hysteria and paranoia of the post-WWII Middle East — these were the tense years of Eli Cohen and the Six-Day War — their film resembles Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans in its focus on the family at the center of the scandal, rendering a gripping account of how the destructive wars fought at home reflect those of their wider societies. (The Landmark, Sat., June 23, 7:30 p.m.; Majestic Crest, Sun., June 24, 4:30 p.m.) (Matthew Duersten)

CONSTANTINE’S SWORD (USA/Italy/Poland/Germany) Evoking hot-button issues without having much new to say about them, Constantine’s Sword follows author and former Catholic priest James Carroll as he investigates charges of anti-Semitism both within the U.S. Air Force and throughout all of Christendom. Carroll’s tome of the same name, which inspired the documentary, ran almost 800 pages, but director Oren Jacoby has condensed its mixture of biblical theory, religious history and personal memoir into a Cliffs Notes exposé lacking the appropriate fervor. (Mann Festival, Sun., June 24, 7:15 p.m.; The Landmark, Fri., June 29, 7:30 p.m.) (Tim Grierson)

 GO  COPACABANA (Argentina) The Argentinian director Martín Rejtman’s first foray into documentary is a beautifully observed, elliptical portrait of Buenos Aires’ Bolivian immigrant population. It’s a collage of fragmentary snapshots and passing glances, seen from the perspective of Rejtman’s constantly moving camera, most of them relating to the preparations for the annual Festival of the Virgin of Copacabana: workers in a sewing factory furiously spin thread; a Bolivian radio DJ enthusiastically rallies his listeners; dancers in fantastic costume rehearse their moves; an unseen narrator flips through two scrapbooks of photos — one of the old country and one of the new. By the end, what began as an anthropological exercise has turned into a profoundly humane contemplation of home and community. (Majestic Crest, Sat., June 23, 2:15 p.m.; Landmark Regent, Tues., June 26, 9:45 p.m.) (SF)

 GO  DOES YOUR SOUL HAVE A COLD? (Japan/USA) Unlike many other diseases, depression remains stigmatized — a malady that isolates its sufferers, leaving them more medicated than understood. That lack of understanding is even worse in Japan, which only began acknowledging the illness’s validity during the 1990s, thanks to enterprising pharmaceutical companies. Thumbsucker director Mike Mills provides an unobtrusive, sensitive glimpse at several Tokyo residents battling depression, chronicling the limited effectiveness of their prescriptions and the still-lingering effects of societal taboos toward the disease. Mills doesn’t overemphasize his subjects’ misery, but in a subtle way his film demonstrates the alienation and helplessness felt by all those afflicted. (Majestic Crest, Thurs., June 28, 4:30 p.m.; Mann Festival, Fri., June 29, 9:30 p.m.) (TG)

DYNAMITE WARRIOR (Thailand) Produced by the writer-director of Ong Bak, this irresistibly ridiculous action extravaganza unfolds in a 19th-century rural Thailand populated by cattle raiders, black wizards, oversize cannibals, enchanted henchmen and evil industrialists. Dan Chupong stars as a heroic simpleton with mega Muay Thai skills and an unseemly interest in the magic menstrual blood of a local virgin. The title is not a figure of speech: Dude literally rides around on homemade explosive rockets blowing shit up. (Landmark Regent, Thurs., June 28, 10 p.m.; Majestic Crest, Fri., June 29, 4:30p.m.) (Nathan Lee)

THE ELEPHANT AND THE SEA (Malaysia) This intriguing film from Malaysian director Woo Ming Jim, about a fishing village beset by an epidemic that may be the result of modern-day psychic malaise, is not for the restless. In one of two lightly interwoven stories, a teenage boy runs petty scams to survive, while in the other, a newly widowed man finds renewal in unexpected places. The characters aren’t exactly expressive, but those who stick with them to the end will be rewarded by a memorable and beautifully staged final scene between ?the boy and a young woman he’s wronged. And for the record, yes, there is an elephant. (Italian Cultural Institute, Mon., June 25, 5 p.m., and Wed., June 27, 7:30 p.m.) (CW)

 GO  GREAT WORLD OF SOUND (USA) The title is the name of a fly-by-night Charlotte record label and the characters are like modern-day descendents of The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill in director Craig Zobel’s wry first feature about the art of the hustle and the dreams of small-town folks with stardust in their eyes. Zobel and co-writer George Smith give us a couple of enjoyably mismatched protagonists — white, soft-spoken Martin (Pat Healy) and black, gregarious Clarence (Kene Holliday) — and follow them from Birmingham to Biloxi as they set about signing new artists less on the basis of “talent” than on the size of their bank accounts. Hardly the feature-length auditions episode of American Idol it might have been, Great World of Sound emerges as a wry contemplation of the American success ethic, complete with a couple of rousing musical numbers and one unforgettable performance of a new national anthem. (Majestic Crest; Sun., June 24, 10:15 p.m. and Wed., June 27, 4:30 p.m.) (SF)

 

 GO  JOIN US (USA) Raimund Melz emigrated from Austria after WWII to become one of the American South’s overlooked success stories: the pastor of a small Christian cult — one of the nation’s estimated 3,000 to 5,000 cults — whose women are taught to hate themselves and whose men build houses for the grandfatherly Melz, move into them and pay inflated rent to his Mountain Rock Church. Nor are the children suffered, enduring whippings and canings from their brainwashed parents and Melz. Ondi Timoner chronicles several families’ attempts to deprogram themselves of Melz’s baleful ?influence and, ultimately, to bring him to court. It’s an affecting, disturbing and well-edited tale that offers an unforgettable glimpse into the mind of a benign tyrant. (Majestic Crest, Sat., June 23, 7:15 p.m.; Landmark Regent, Mon., June 25, 5 p.m.; Billy Wilder Theater, Tues., June 26, 9:45 p.m.) (Steven Mikulan)

 GO  JUMP! (USA) The ever-growing documentary subgenre that could be called “Schoolkids Do the Damnedest Things!” (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, et al.) has now given rise to Jump!, which details the up-and-coming school sport of competitive jump rope. Anyone who has seen a Rocky movie knows that it’s not just for girls anymore, but apparently things have reached a new level — this is jump rope in the style of You Got Served, with crazy flips, breakdance moves, and one frighteningly intense preteen named Tori who seems to know more inspirational homilies than Mike Ditka. The first big-studio producer to take this idea, cast older and sexier youths, and add a bumping soundtrack will make a bundle. Meanwhile, marvel at what the kids these days can do. (Mann Festival, Sun., June 24, 4:30 p.m., and Tues., June 26, 5 p.m.; Majestic Crest, Sat., June 30, noon) (Luke Y. Thompson)

KOMANEKO: THE CURIOUS CAT (Japan) There are numerous films about the travails of being a filmmaker, but this is probably the only one to star a plush feline. Just shy of an hour long, it’s a collection of stop-motion shorts in which Komaneko struggles to make home movies with a number of uncooperative subjects, including a pair of dolls, a ghost, an aggressive bird with loose bowels, and the Abominable Snowman. The music gets insufferably cloying at times, and Komaneko’s dialogue consists mostly of a really obnoxious “Nyaaaaah!” sound, but there’s enough of an off-kilter, Super Mario World vibe to the enterprise to keep things oddly compelling. (Landmark Regent, Sat., June 23, 11 a.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Sat., June 30, 11:30 a.m.) (LYT)

 GO  THE MAN WHO SHOT CHINATOWN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOHN A. ALONZO (U.K./Germany/USA) Although it drifts into hagiography at times (“There was never anyone else like John and there never will be” — thank you, Sally Field) and makes the debatable claim that its subject was the first Hispanic cameraman to achieve prominence in Hollywood (Gabriel Figueroa, hello!), Axel Schill’s documentary about the late, Oscar-nominated Chinatown d.p. John Alonzo makes an otherwise compelling case for Alonzo as an important innovator of both the documentary-influenced look of 1970s American cinema and of the coming HD ­revolution. As an added bonus, there’s some terrific archival footage of legendary d.p. (and Alonzo mentor) James Wong Howe ­offering a priceless tutorial on how to light a movie set. (Landmark Regent, Tues., June 26, 7:30 p.m.) (SF)

ON THE RUMBA RIVER (France/Congo) This profile of legendary Congolese singer Wendo Kolosoy — centered on his efforts to reunite his band, the Victoria Bakolo Miziki Players — is strongest when it simply lets the elderly musicians sing and dance. Those moments, like the music itself, are vibrant and moving. But director-producer Jacques Sarasin’s documentary is slighter than intended for anyone not already familiar with Papa Wendo or the tortured history of the Congo. Too much is assumed and not enough crucial political or cultural history is properly contextualized (or even presented) for the film to pack the necessary punch. (Mann Festival, Thurs., June 28, 7 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Sat., June 30, 5 p.m.) (EH)

 

 GO  OWL AND THE SPARROW (Vietnam/USA) Writer-director Stephane Gauger’s lovely debut tracks a week in the lives of three young Vietnamese: a flight attendant on holiday, a zoo employee and a 10-year-old runaway. After suffering through multiple-storyline ensemble dramas like Crash and Babel, which resort to convoluted narrative coincidences to drive home humanistic messages, Owl and the Sparrow feels shockingly, refreshingly simple. Unfolding organically and honestly without a thought to making any larger points, the film’s look at loneliness and tentative connection is small-scaled but tremendously resonant. Special accolades to child actress Pham Thi Han, who doesn’t have a hammy or maudlin bone in her body. (Landmark Regent, Sat., June 23, 5 p.m.; Majestic Crest, Tues., June 26, 7 p.m.) (TG)

 GO  POOL OF PRINCESSES (Germany) For the first 15 minutes or so, it seems that Pool of Princesses will bring little new to the canon of fiction and documentary films detailing modern rites of passage for teenage girls: boozing, drinking, casual sex, flirtations with crime. Truthfully, it doesn’t. But writer-director Bettina Blümner manages to pull you in with her attention to detail as she captures the ways that the movie’s trio of friends unconsciously juggle remnants of childhood with the poses of adulthood. A moment ?that lingers: Blonde bombshell Karla (a baby Heidi Klum) is caught in conversation with her hands-off mom, struggling to articulate how she craves some semblance of parental ­interest or concern. “We have two rules,” grins her mom. “No heroin and no pregnancies. That’s worked well for us.” The close-up on Karla’s face suggests otherwise. (Italian Cultural Institute, Mon., June 25, 9:45 p.m. and Thurs., June 28, 5 p.m.) (EH)

RAZZLE DAZZLE (Australia) In director Darren Ashton’s by-the-book mockumentary, hapless dance teacher Mr. Jonathon (Ben Miller) tries to inspire his academy of young hoofers to defeat arrogant Miss Elizabeth (Jane Hall) and her classically trained students to win Australia’s top dancing prize. Razzle Dazzle is likable, amusing, sweet . . . and so completely predictable that you can map out the entire movie within 10 minutes, from its easy jabs at stage moms and show-biz kids to its big-showdown finale. (The Landmark, Fri., June 22, 7:15 p.m.; Mann Festival, Tues., June 26, 7:30 p.m.) (TG)

SAINT DEATH (Mexico/USA) Last year’s The Devil’s Miner highlighted an odd quirk of Bolivian Christianity, in the miners who pay tribute to the devil while working deep underground. Eva Aridjis’ film showcases an equally odd subgroup within Latin Catholicism — those who worship Death as a female saint. It’s surreal to see statues of the grim reaper all decked out in doll clothes and turned into idols, and it might make for a great magazine article. As a feature documentary, however, it doesn’t get particularly deep. Once you’ve heard the premise, you’ve practically seen the movie already. (Landmark Regent, Mon., June 25, 7:45 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Fri., June 29, 9:45 p.m.) (LYT)

 GO  SECOND CHANCE SEASON (USA) Long before Nick Young became a top prospect for this year’s NBA draft, he was a senior at Reseda’s Cleveland High, trying to score well enough on the SAT to be eligible for a USC scholarship. In this terrific, if slightly overlong, documentary (fewer play-by-plays of Nick’s big high school games might make for a tighter film), first-time director Daniel H. Forer follows Nick’s senior year, as well as the many challenges facing his wonderfully close-knit family. Still coming to terms with the 1991 murder of Nick’s older brother Charles, the Youngs, as the film progresses, must decide whether to have a face-to-face meeting with the paroled killer. There’s also the wrenching matter of another son, who’s in a mental hospital. Forer juggles these various plot strands with ease, creating the sense of a family united not only by its own bonds, but also by a vast, loving community of friends, coaches and teachers. This is a fine and valuable movie. (Mann Festival, Fri., June 22, 7:30 p.m., and Sun., July 1, 2:30 p.m.) (CW)

 GO  SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA (USA) Werner Herzog meets Monty Python in writer-director-actor Tony Stone’s dreamy, deadpan saga — set to the thumping strains of Popul Vuh, Judas Priest, Morbid Angel and more — of (mostly) sublimated erotic obsession in the Old New World. Left for carrion on the shores of Newfoundland, a pair of lumbering, heavy-helmeted Viking warriors, identified in the credits as Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) and Orn (Stone), crash their way through to the forest primeval, killing lots of trees and Indians and smaller critters along the way (and, in one indelible moment, practicing the primitive rudiments of hair guitar). Despite some atrocious table manners and a brief if explosive bout with irregularity, all goes swimmingly — until, that is, Volnard encounters a pretty-footed Irish monk with conversion on his mind. Sparks fly, swords flash, and, for one hushed moment, the giggling subsides. A must-see. (Landmark Regent, Fri., June 22, 9:45 p.m.; Billy Wilder Theater, Mon., June 25, 4 p.m.) (Ron Stringer)

 

THE TOWN THAT WAS (USA) Centralia is the Pennsylvania coal town whose anthracite seams accidentally caught fire in 1962 and have been burning ever since. Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland’s documentary follows the human and bureaucratic missteps that resulted in this subterranean inferno spreading over the years like some contagion from an H.P. Lovecraft story. The story is an ode to front-porch, small-town life, focused on one of the few remaining Centralia residents and his eccentric dedication to preserving this doomed outpost of Americana. Unfortunately, the filmmakers pack a quarter hour of information into 70 shapeless minutes. (Italian Cultural Institute, Fri., June 22, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Mon., June 25, 2:30 p.m.) (SM)

 GO  YOUNG @ HEART (U.K.) From the washed-out images to the twee voiceover (courtesy of director Stephen Walker), this British television documentary about the titular Massachusetts-based senior citizens chorus so slavishly embodies the creakiest clichés of British television documentaries that you begin to wonder if it’s not all a big put-on — if Christopher Guest didn’t direct the damn thing under a pseudonym. Fortunately, Walker’s subjects — nearly all in their 80s and 90s, with a greatest-hits collection of medical ailments and a set list that runs the gamut from The Beatles to Sonic Youth — more than carry the day. Set over the six weeks leading up to the chorus’ latest concert, Young @ Heart adopts the will-they-pull-it-all-together-by-showtime formula of so many backstage docs, with the caveat that, for these performers, neither time nor Father Time is on their side. The film’s appeal is at once sentimental and perverse: It’s not every day that you get to see a 92-year-old woman soloing on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” or a deeply affecting rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” performed by a octogenarian with congestive heart failure. Not surprisingly, a feature remake is already in the works. (The Landmark, Thurs., June 28, 7:15 p.m.; Mann Festival, Sun., July 1, 4:45 p.m.) (SF)


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