Los Angeles Film Festival Guide 2008

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

THE AMAZING TRUTH ABOUT QUEEN RAQUELA (Iceland/Philippines) In a documentary that often feels stagy, director Olaf De Fleur Johannesson follows Raquela, a transsexual streetwalker in the Philippines, who becomes an online sex star and is then swept away to Paris by Michael, her Manhattan-based porn boss. What’s weird is that Michael first sends Raquela to Iceland to work in a fish factory, a business plan I frankly didn’t understand. Yet, despite the sense that Johannesson sidesteps some harsh truths about hookers and pimps, there’s no denying that Michael is a compelling jerk, or that one wishes happiness for the lively, resourceful queen. (Mann Festival, Thurs., June 26, 9:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., June 29, 4:30 p.m.) (Chuck Wilson)

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Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

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Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

CRITIC’S PICK  ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (USA) With testimonials from the likes of Lemmy Kilmister, Lars Ulrich and Slash, you’d think that Anvil — the subject of Sacha Gervasi’s hilarious and achingly touching documentary — was Canada’s answer to Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. But 13 albums into a career that began in the late ’70s, the metalheads from the Great White North have yet to enjoy the fame and fortune of their fellow hard-rock stars. Director and one-time roadie for the band, Gervasi (who wrote the story for what became The Terminal) follows Anvil’s remaining original members, singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, two nice Jewish knuckleheads of Spinal Tap–ian proportions; Kudlow used to play his guitar with a dildo; his early songs were inspired by the Spanish Inquisition. Amphitheaters the band once shared with Bon Jovi and Whitesnake have given way to sports bars and community centers. They have middle-aged fans with names like “Cut Loose” and “Mad Dog,” who drink beer through their noses, not to mention relatives with names like Droid, who still sport feathered hair. And if they’re not missing trains thanks to bumbling managers, they’re being screwed by European club owners (including a Hungarian who is filmed also serving goulash to customers — easily the doc’s funniest moment). But even while trudging through 9-to-5 jobs in their 50s — Kudlow, as a driver for a catering company, Reiner, as a construction worker — the duo still talk the dream. When you have to schlep all the way to Japan to play a gig at the ungodly hour of 11:35 a.m. just for a little love and recognition, it’s never a question of when already? but rather why not? (John Anson Ford Amphitheater, Thurs., June 26, 8 p.m.) (Siran Babayan)


GO  THE ART OF FAILURE: CHUCK CONNELLY NOT FOR SALE (USA) Jeff Stimmel’s documentary about the self-sabotaging near-icon of ’80s New York neo-expressionism, whose densely textured paintings and turbulent personality were the basis for Nick Nolte’s character in the Martin Scorsese–directed segment of New York Stories, plays like a calculated if futile bid to kick-start a career that stalled back in 1990 (and therein lies a real New York story). Yet Connelly’s oeuvre to date is strong enough, and his character flaws compensated by enough raw ingenuity, we find ourselves hoping against hope that — falling short of abject surrender to his inner demons — he’ll pull it off. Until then, don’t cross him when he’s drunk. (Mann Festival, Fri., June 27, 7:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., June 29, 4:30 p.m.) (Ron Stringer)

CRITIC’S PICK  BALLAST (USA) Lance Hammer’s fragmentary, mysterious and poetic drama — the deserved winner of the dramatic directing and cinematography prizes at Sundance this year — reveals its central characters and relationships gradually and from a distance, as if we were entering into a private dream. Opening with the death of a middle-aged convenience-store owner and proceeding to trace the impact of the man’s death on his estranged wife, son and twin brother, Ballast is a striking debut feature not only for its writer-director, Hammer, but also for much of its crew and all of its principal cast — remarkable nonprofessional actors recruited on location in Canton, Mississippi. It is a movie marked by the most unusual mix of inspirations: Charles Burnett’s impressionistic renderings of black American life, the Dardenne brothers’ neorealist city symphonies and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ ecstatic wide-screen exploration of rural vistas. But Hammer — who holds an architecture degree from USC and got started in movies as an art director — has digested those influences and formed from them a wholly original meditation on lost souls trying to gain a foothold in a bleak, treacherous landscape. (The Landmark, Wed., June 25, 9:30 p.m.; Regent, Thurs., June 26, 7 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)



BIG HEART CITY (USA) Compulsive gambler and liar Frank (Shawn Andrews) comes home to Los Angeles, following a six-month prison sentence, only to find no sign of the pregnant girlfriend he left behind. Taking a low-paying day-watchman job alongside older gambler Larry (Seymour Cassel), Frank spins all kinds of tales about being a crab fisherman, and his imminent wedding preparations, but mostly he does very little in his sparse apartment. Writer-director Ben Rodkin effectively portrays the frustration of living in L.A. on a low budget but fails to give us anything else to connect to — Frank’s a jerk, and not the charismatic kind either, just a pain in the neck you want to be rid of. (Regent, Tues., June 24, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Wed., June 25, 1:30 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 10 p.m.) (Luke Y. Thompson)

CRITIC’S PICK  BOOGIE MAN: THE LEE ATWATER STORY (USA) Just about everyone interviewed for Stefan Forbes’ fascinating documentary about Lee Atwater — whether Democrat or Republican pols, African-American bluesmen or hardened reporters — ends anecdotes about the Republican strategist’s dirty tricks with a titter that’s either nervous or ambivalently appreciative. Politically speaking, it may be enough to know that Atwater, who shamelessly drove race into the 1988 presidential campaign to destroy Michael Dukakis and win the election for George Bush Sr., was a disciple of Strom Thurmond who got along like a house on fire with Bush Jr. and taught Karl Rove most of what he knows about exploiting media. But Forbes adroitly fills out his picture of this “marsupial” little man with “the eyes of a killer” through the testimony of those who admired and/or loathed Atwater. Less persuasive is Forbes’ perfunctory, psychologically thin rummage through Atwater’s childhood for a traumatic event that would explain his utter ruthlessness. He finds one, but it’s much less interesting than the question of whether the blues-playing Southerner was a racist or merely a cynic, or the film’s revelations about the ambiguities of Atwater’s highly publicized remorse, with hand on Bible, as he lay dying (and largely ignored by the dynasty he had served so assiduously) of brain cancer. (Mann Festival, Sun., June 22, 7 p.m.; Regent, Mon., June 23, 4:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Fri., June 27, 1:45 p.m.) (Ella Taylor)


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Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe

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La France

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Heartbeat Detector

GO  THE CHOIR (South Africa) While not flinching from the harsh realities of his subject matter, Michael Davie succeeds in crafting a provocative and strangely sentimental documentary out of life in a South African prison. Carefully staged song-and-dance sequences alternate with footage of grueling captivity as the angel-voiced inmates of a Johannesburg penitentiary expiate their sins chorally and participate in the Best National Prison Choir competition. An alarming degree of access to prison life appears to have been granted the filmmakers of this ambitious work that explores both the redemptive power of song and living conditions in newly democratized South Africa. (The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 7:30 p.m.; Regent, Thurs., June 26, 9:45 p.m.) (John Tottenham)

CRITIC’S PICK  DIRTY HANDS: THE ART AND CRIMES OF DAVID CHOE (USA) “There’s a downside to making your dreams come true,” sayeth the titular “outlaw” graphic designer, and as long as it sticks to memorializing the feckless life and career that ran up against that seemingly inevitable moment of clarity, Harry Kim’s tagalong documentary has nearly as much run-amuck energy to burn as its self-destructive, supertalented subject. Then, after an hour or so of watching kleptomaniac tagger, muralist and magazine illustrator Choe say and do and (most urgently) paint whatever comes into his explosive head, there come — as an only possibly unintended consequence of so much self-will run riot — three months in a Tokyo jail cell (on assault charges) and the transformative epiphany at which those most invested, emotionally and otherwise, in the artist and his renegade career can only shake their bemused heads and avert their eyes. Had Choe, at this point, sidelined his filmmaker pal and seized control of the narrative, Dirty Hands might have delved deeper and ended up a bona fide confessio. As it stands, we’re left — more or less happily — with Kim’s wistful framing sequence of a dinosaur hunt amid the brothels and swamp lands of the Congo, along with dispirited glimpses of a counterculture hero suddenly (if erratically) impelled by a set of directives his acolytes and enablers dare not follow. (Majestic Crest, Sat., June 21, 9:45 p.m.; Mann Festival, Sun., June 22, 4 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 4:30 p.m.) (RS)



GO  FINISHING HEAVEN (USA) Despite the fact that the principal subject of this true-life tale is gratingly obnoxious, the documentary itself is never less than enthralling. Director Mark Mann picks up the thread dropped in 1970 when promising NYU film student Robert Feinberg abandoned his film Heaven — briefly produced by Martin Scorsese and cast with denizens of New York’s downtown arts scene — and spent the next 30 years living aimlessly, avoiding work on the movie. Part gritty cautionary tale, part glittery survey of bygone eras in New York counterculture and American filmmaking, Finishing Heaven is an uncorked time capsule that speaks to the nature of creativity and the self-imposed barriers that artists create for themselves. (Regent, Wed.,June 25, 7:15 p.m.; The Landmark, Thurs., June 26, 2 p.m. and Sat., June 28, 1:30 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy)


GO  FOUR WIVES — ONE MAN (Iran/Sweden) The opening moments of this intriguingly multilayered documentary on a polygamous marriage in Iran let the viewer know that conversation will be frank. “The only thing my son thinks about is pussy,” says the elderly mother of the man in the equation. By turns funny, infuriating and depressing, Four Wives follows three years in the life of Heda, his wives and the 20 children who all constitute his family. It’s a complex but one-sided dynamic, as the women bicker amongst themselves about who’s most miserable or maltreated, toss profanities and threats Heda’s way, and suffer verbal and physical abuse — all as he threatens to bring a younger, more obedient wife into the fold. The film’s closing image is utterly heartbreaking. (The Landmark, Fri., June 27, 7:30 p.m. and Sun., June 29, 1 p.m.) (EH)

CRITIC’S PICK  LA FRANCE (France) Writing from Cannes last year about this audacious, classical-yet-genre-bending World War I movie-with-music, I dubbed the film “Bresson meets the Beatles” — which isn’t far off the mark, except that it risks making Serge Bozon’s extraordinary third feature sound like a gimmick, when in fact it’s anything but. Set in the fall of 1917, La France begins far from the frontlines, where a distraught soldier’s wife (Sylvie Testud) disguises herself as a man and sets off in search of her husband. Along the way, she encounters a small company of soldiers and begs their melancholic lieutenant (the excellent Pascal Greggory) to let her join them — unaware that the men are harboring a secret of their own. Their journey into the woods is punctuated by four original songs, performed by the cast on makeshift instruments and in pitch-perfect, Brit-pop harmonies — not full-blown musical numbers per se, but merely the attempt by reluctant men of war to maintain some sense of their inner selves. Meanwhile, the war rages, heard but not seen, its dehumanizing effects powerfully felt. (Billy Wilder Theater, Sat., June 21, 5 p.m.; AMC Avco Center, Tues., June 24, 7 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)


A GIRL CUT IN TWO (France) Claude Chabrol continues his cleverly dyspeptic studies in the indiscreet charmlessness of the bourgeoisie with this black comedy, inspired by the 1906 murder of Beaux Arts architect Stanford White, about two vain men in pursuit of the same firm, young flesh in contemporary provincial France. The blonde weather girl, played by Ludivine Sagnier with just the right blend of swagger and vulnerability, prefers the older writer (François Berléand) to the callow young playboy (Benoit Magimel). But truly, there’s not much to choose between these two narcissists — or any of the other co-dependent manipulators who get drawn into this predictable web of deceit. Though the movie frames itself as moral inquiry, there’s little room for us to do more than share in the supercilious detachment with which Chabrol contemplates his characters. (Majestic Crest, Fri., June 20, 9:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Tues., June 24, 9:30 p.m.) (ET)

 HAFNER’S PARADISE (Austria/Spain) Gunther Schwaiger’s documentary about former Nazis living in Spanish exile centers on 83-year-old Paul Maria Hafner, an ex Waffen-SS officer who outwardly seems like a friendly if vain old buffer. But he remains an unapologetic defender of the Reich (clue: he’s writing a book called Hitler for Eternity) and an energetic Holocaust denier, despite having been a guard at Dachau. Although Schwaiger nets interesting footage of his subject fraternizing with his rancid old Nazi and Francoist pals, reading Mein Kampf, writing David Irving a postcard, etc., Hafner’s brick wall of blanket denials and convenient memory lapses is never breached, leaving us only mildly enlightened. Hotel Terminus it ain’t. (The Landmark, Fri., June 20, 10 p.m.; Regent, Sun., June 22, 4:30 p.m.) (John Patterson)


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You, the Living

 HALF-LIFE (USA) With the economy tanking and fewer of us able to afford even crummy apartments in the big city, movies about how dysfunctional suburban life is just don’t win my sympathy. Give me a nice house in the Valley, and I’ll take a little creepy infidelity if that’s part of the deal; it beats being broke. Still, at least writer-director Jennifer Phang manages to up the ante on the American Beauty/Little Children model by setting things in an apocalyptic future, where the world outside is falling to pieces and one young boy might just have telekinetic powers. A little pretentious but nicely moody. (Majestic Crest, Sun., June 29, 7 p.m.) (LYT)

CRITIC’S PICK  HEARTBEAT DETECTOR (France) The skeletons in the corporate closet of director Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector are enough to make Enron look like the patron saint of the Fortune 500. Set in the Paris headquarters of a fictional German petrochemical giant called SC Farb, the film explores the actual and theoretical connections between the company’s mandate to increase productivity and rid its workforce of undesirable elements and the similar business model of an earlier, efficiency-minded multinational: the Third Reich. And if that sounds like a bit of a stretch, you haven’t heard the half of it. Before it reaches its end, Heartbeat Detector winds its epistemological way through discussions of historical amnesia, the decay of language and the soullessness of technology. It’s an unapologetic film of ideas — perhaps the headiest of its kind to arrive on these shores since Godard’s Notre Musique. But Klotz’s film more consciously echoes early Godard in the way it binds its dense philosophizing to the spine of a pulpy crime fiction. Mathieu Amalric stars as Simon Kessler, SC Farb’s in-house shrink and human-resources honcho, who’s asked to evaluate the “mental state” of the company’s CEO, Mathias Jüst (an excellent Michael Lonsdale), who has of late been locking himself away in his office for hours on end and sitting alone listening to Schubert in the back seat of his parked car. Just what is eating at the ironically named Jüst becomes the film’s central enigma — an existential crisis, like the one in Michael Haneke’s Caché, that grows only deeper and more diffuse with each passing revelation. (Billy Wilder Theater, Fri., June 20, 7 p.m. and Mon., June 23, 4 p.m.) (SF)

 HEIDI FLEISS: THE WOULD-BE MADAM OF CRYSTAL (USA) Could this be the last Heidi Fleiss documentary? Perhaps. In the unexpected and poignant turn of events that concludes this 70-minute HBO-produced film, Fleiss appears to be on her way to becoming a (relatively) contented desert eccentric. We see her go to Nevada to open a man-filled bordello for women, only to get sidetracked by run-ins with the locals and her own drug addiction. There are reports that Fleiss clashed with filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Inside Deep Throat), but they’ve nevertheless found a way to suggest that a reprieve from public scrutiny — and her own ambition — has finally come her way. Here’s hoping it sticks. (Majestic Crest, Thurs., June 26, 9:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Sat., June 28, 10 p.m.) (CW)


HELLO, STRANGER (South Korea) In this gentle, conciliatory drama about the plight of migrants to South Korea, a legal defector from North Korea threads his way through the South’s morass of heedless hypercapitalism while giving and receiving succor from kindly individuals willing to buck the system. Though awkwardly mounted by director Kim Dong-hyun, who seems uncomfortable with the conventions of realism, Hello, Stranger makes an honorable and moving, if slightly naive, addition to the flourishing cinema of global displacement, while shedding light on the complex migratory politics of contemporary Asia. (AMC Avco Center, Fri., June 20, 7 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 4 p.m.) (ET)


GO  HOLD ME TIGHT, LET ME GO (England) This powerful documentary about an English boarding school for emotionally troubled children feels a little long, yet I find myself haunted by the children it depicts. With beautiful restraint, filmmaker Kim Longinotto (Shinjuku Boys) tracks a year in the life of several boys, ranging in age from 8 to 15, who’ve been sent to Oxford’s Mulberry Bush School because they’re too temperamental, or too violent, or too nakedly emotional for the public system to handle. Watching these youths rant and rave makes one’s heart pound with anxiety, even as the teachers and counselors respond with a humbling level of patience. (The Landmark, Sat., June 21, 7:15 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 7 p.m.) (CW)



HOTEL VERY WELCOME (Germany) The Western travelers roaming Asia in this uneven but appealing film from German director Sonja Heiss are classically clueless about themselves and the culture around them. In Bangkok, a 30-year-old German woman’s only human contact is with the Thai travel agent she’s talking to on the phone. Elsewhere in Thailand, two 20-something English backpackers grow increasingly sick of each other. Meanwhile, in India, an Irishman rediscovers his better self. Although Heiss is a little too in love with the sight of the English boys swaying to trance music, her willingness to linger too long feels true to the tradition of the wayward seeker. (AMC Avco Center, Sat., June 21, 2 p.m. and Sun., June 22, 9:30 p.m.) (CW)


GO  I’LL COME RUNNING (Denmark/USA) The first feature by Texas-based director Spencer Parsons begins as a thin but likable snapshot of romance among the rudderless 20-something set — in this case, an Austin waitress (Melonie Diaz) and the Danish backpacker (Jon Lange) who saunters into her bar — then abruptly morphs into a surprisingly insightful portrait of how a sudden loss reverberates through a family and a circle of friends. Parsons isn’t much of a visual stylist, and the film veers off in an unfortunately histrionic direction near the end, but there are fine performances along the way (especially from the very appealing Diaz) and a nice feel for relationships made — and unmade — by simple twists of fate. (Regent, Sat., June 21, 9:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Wed., June 25, 4 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 7:15 p.m.) (SF)


INFINITE BORDER (Mexico) Director Juan Manuel Sepúlveda’s documentary on the difficulties of Central Americans crossing Mexico on their way to the U.S. catalogs familiar hardships — harsh terrain, crooked cops, racial prejudice — but transcends expectation by focusing on the spiritual nature of the quest for a better life. The camera lingers on lush mountains, a seemingly endless train as it ambles down a track filled with human cargo, and conversations between travelers. Also revealed in this visually striking film, though, are many ironies and hypocrisies: The attitudes of some Mexican officials toward Central American immigrants mirrors that of the Minutemen in the U.S. toward Mexican illegals, with bloodshed underscoring the bigotry. (Italian Cultural Institute, Sun., June 22, 9:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Mon., June 23, 9:45 p.m.) (EH)


CRITIC’S PICK  LARGO (USA) With its cozy tables, miniature stage and strict no-talking policy, the old Largo was the rare venue that catered to the performers rather than the audience. Why, then, does Largo show as little of the club interior as possible? The performers are framed in frontal midshots, cutting out everything except the space behind them, and while the black-and-white film stock suits the club’s classy musical fare, it fails to capture the candlelit glow that was so much a part of the Largo experience. Since the release of this documentary coincides with Largo’s relocation from Fairfax to the larger and more conventional Coronet Theater on La Cienega, one would think the focus would be on the aspects of the original location which couldn’t simply be re-created. Perhaps for Mark “Flanny” Flanagan, Largo’s founder and the film’s producer-director, the old club wasn’t so much about how it felt but who was there. In 112 minutes, Largo packs in a lot of performances and, in a fashion true to the club’s idiosyncratic ethos, alternates between singer-songwriters and comedians. Largo always had a soft spot for maudlin folk music, and at times one identifies with the audience member who heckles Michael Penn as he’s tuning up: “Just set it on ‘sensitive songwriter’ and go!” But where the music is sappy, the comedy is daring and razor-sharp. Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman aren’t the comedic equivalent of Jackson Browne and Aimee Mann, but they offset each other’s presence in the film. The best segment of all isn’t song or standup, but a Boogie Nights anecdote related with pitch-perfect timing by John C. Reilly. Largo might not be a wholly satisfying translation of the old Fairfax experience, but if every defunct Los Angeles venue were accorded a time capsule with this much detail, the city would finally have the history it deserves. (Majestic Crest, Sun., June 22, 9:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Tues., June 24, 4:15 p.m.; Mann Festival, Wed., June 25, 9:45 p.m.) (Sam Sweet)



GO  LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Sweden) Terrible title, brilliant film. In ’70s Stockholm, an outcast albino boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is routinely bullied at school until a mysterious girl his age, Eli (Lina Leandersson), moves in next door. She too feels isolated and rejected from the world outside, but for very different reasons; could be, I dunno, something to do with her taste for human blood and ability to fly. Tomas Alfredson, whose prior credits are primarily on Swedish TV shows, makes an astute leap to the big screen with this coming-of-age/horror hybrid that not only delivers gorgeous wintry panoramas, but also the requisite metaphors — in this case, vampirism as both adolescent power fantasy and terminal-disease medicament. When it comes to preteens as eternal vampires, Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire used to be the gold standard; in Leandersson, I think we have a new champion. And if you ever wanted to know what exactly happens to vampires if they enter your house without being first invited across the threshold, this may be the first movie to show the consequences in graphic detail. (AMC Avco Center, Fri., June 20, 10:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Sat., June 21, 10 p.m.) (LYT)


GO  LOOT (USA) The loot being sought by Utah gadget inventor Lance Larson may lie in two spots — Japanese swords buried in a chest in the Philippines and jewelry hidden in an unknown Austrian residence. By coincidence, Larson stumbles upon two World War II vets who both claim to have left bounty behind during the war but who can’t recall the exact locations. In this artfully compact documentary, director Darius Marder follows Larson as he indefatigably attempts to pry — oh, so gently — useful nuggets of info out of the two old men. As patient as his subject, Marder lets Larson set the film’s sweetly melancholy tone, and that’s wise, because this Utah father of four turned treasure hunter has a touch of the poet about him. (Majestic Crest, Mon., June 23, 7 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 4:30 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Fri., June 27, 9:30 p.m.) (CW)


MADE IN AMERICA (USA) Stacy Peralta, director of the skate-and-surf-themed documentaries Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, shifts his focus from the Westside to South-Central in this ambitious treatise on L.A. gang culture. Peralta’s previous films worked because they were autobiographical stories about unsung subcultures. Made in America is told in the same catchy style as Dogtown, but without the anchor of personal experience, Peralta’s tone becomes clichéd and pedantic. Nevertheless, the film serves as a vital reminder of South-Central’s ongoing, yet largely invisible, suffering. A close-up sequence of bereft mothers, each grieving for a child lost to gang violence, should be required viewing for every Los Angeles resident. (California Plaza, Fri., June 27, 8 p.m.) (SS)


GO  MAN ON WIRE (UK) Like the love child of Jean-Pierre Melville and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Wisconsin Death Trip director James Marsh’s wildly entertaining docudrama revisits the peculiar case of French provocateur Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Petit had actually conceived of his stunt years earlier, when he first read about the WTC’s impending construction, then spent months casing the joint and recruiting the crack (and crackpot) team of collaborators who would aid him in his daredevil feat. From those raw materials, Marsh has crafted a melancholic valentine to a bombed-out icon of the Manhattan skyline, and a magnificently eccentric film about imagination, risk taking and creative self-expression. (Majestic Crest, Fri., June 20, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 1 p.m.) (SF)


GO  MECHANICAL LOVE (Denmark) Phie Ambo’s documentary plays like Rod Serling–penned sci-fi, except that everything in it happened just last year. A Japanese engineer obsessively tries to re-create his family with robotic doppelgangers called “geminoids,” and can’t understand why his daughter is so creeped out by them; meanwhile, robotic baby seals prove comforting to mentally deteriorating seniors, who can benefit from the love of a pet but might not be capable of taking care of a living one. (Think really high-end Furbys.) Alas, no talk of robo-sex here, so let’s hope there’s a sequel. (Mann Festival, Thurs., June 26, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Sat., June 28, 10 p.m.) (LYT)


MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (USA) Following a one-night stand, two artsy 20-somethings slowly reveal themselves to each other over the course of a drifting all-day date in San Francisco. The twist? They’re both African-American in a city that isn’t. It’s a fresh way to approach old questions about blackness, but by the time the couple takes an afternoon amble through the Museum of the African Diaspora, it feels like director Barry Jenkins is flogging his theme. More penetrating are the expressions of actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins: his eyes, enormous and gentle, and her smile, a soft reward on a sharp face. Jenkins wants to spark a discussion, but his film has the most to say when no one is talking at all. (The Landmark, Fri., June 20, 9:45 p.m.; Regent, Mon., June 23, 7 p.m. and Tues., June 24, 2 p.m.) (SS)



GO  MIRAGEMAN (Chile) When soft-spoken but hard-bodied strip-club bouncer Maco (Marko Zaror) happens upon a home invasion, he grabs one of the perpetrators, appropriates his ski mask and saves the day. TV news reports end up capturing the imagination of Maco’s handicapped brother, who lives in a mental home, and thus Maco decides to push things further by donning a superhero costume and putting his self-trained karate skills to work. The LAFF program notes call Mirageman “the most exciting actor-director team-up since Chow Yun-Fat first met John Woo,” a braggadocious comparison that does nobody any favors; better to think of it as a cinematic indie comic that critiques the tropes of its bigger-budget antecedents. (Regent, Sun., June 22, 9:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Thurs., June 26, 10 p.m.) (LYT)


GO  MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH (USA) Writer/artist/musician Morgan Dews is clearly a creative fellow, but he didn’t have to use much imagination in crafting his first feature — it turns out that his grandmother had saved hours upon hours of recordings and home movies in a collection whose size was only revealed after her death. Those films paint a dark portrait of a 1960s family gradually deteriorating under an alcoholic patriarch and the psychiatric misdiagnoses of the children. Dews has edited that raw material into a 76-minute sorta-narrative, embellished with a haunting, ambient score by Albrecht Kunze Paul Damian Hogan. Hard to focus on at times but a work of art for sure. (The Landmark, Fri., June 20, 7:15 p.m.; Regent, Sat., June 21, 4:30 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Wed., June 25, 4:30 p.m.) (LYT)  

GO  PAPER OR PLASTIC? (USA) In America, there’s a contest for everything, including fastest grocery-store bagger. Held each year in Las Vegas, the three-day event brings together state bagging champs, eight of whom are the subjects of this irresistible documentary from co-directors Alex D. da Silva and Justine Jacob. The contestants, all (with the exception of a 50-year-old Minnesota man) in their late teens and early 20s and completely charming in their naiveté, are so enthusiastic and serious about grocery-store life that one feels cynical and hardened by comparison. Despite what the papers say, there apparently are happy people out there in America. (Regent, Fri., June 20, 7:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 1:30 p.m.; Mann Festival, Wed., June 25, 4 p.m.) (CW)


THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED (USA) There’s nothing pleasurable about this (barely) feature-length, self-consciously retro debut by writer-director Josh Safdie, which suggests what might happen if you took the navel-gazing American indie movement known as Mumblecore (e.g., Funny Ha Ha, Hannah Takes the Stairs) and reduced it to the point where all that remained was some navel lint. Safdie’s girlfriend and muse (and the film’s alleged co-writer), Eléonore Hendricks, stars as a free-spirited young woman who wanders the streets of Manhattan engaging in random acts of kleptomania (including the theft of a car) and bedding down with a sorta-kinda boyfriend (played by Safdie). A movie this thin needs lots of charm to get by, but The Pleasure of Being Robbed has none to burn. (The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 4 p.m.; Regent, Tues., June 24, 4:30 p.m. and Wed., June 25, 9:45 p.m.) (SF)


THE POKER HOUSE (USA) In her feature-film directing debut, actress Lori Petty taps the autobiographical to craft a coming-of-age tale set in 1976 small-town Iowa. Co-written by Petty and David Alan Grier, The Poker House is a day in the life of high school basketball star and soul-music fanatic Agnes, as she flirts with her addict mom’s abusive pimp/lover, tries to take care of her younger sisters and comes out on the other side of a brutal attack. Unfortunately, this glimpse into poverty’s myriad tolls is unevenly written (from self-consciously poetic voice-over to stilted dialogue) and features too many embarrassingly broad performances (including ones by Grier and Selma Blair). Fantastic soundtrack, though. (Mann Festival, Fri., June 20, 7:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Mon., June 23, 4:30 p.m.; Majestic Crest, Wed., June 25, 7 p.m.) (EH)


PRESSURE COOKER (USA) “Break the mentality of the McDonald’s palate!” is among the tough-love advice dispensed by culinary-arts instructor Wilma Stephenson, whose inner-city Philadelphia high school students have racked up millions in prestigious trade-school scholarships. It’s too bad that co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker haven’t taken more of their subject’s advice to heart, shoehorning Stephenson’s story into the “contest documentary” mold that already seemed tiresome back when Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom were making a mint peddling it. Can I get fries with that? (Mann Festival, Sat., June 21, 7:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Tues., June 24, 7:15 p.m.; Regent, Wed., June 25, 1:45 p.m.) (SF)



PRINCE OF BROADWAY (USA)“Will you stop mumbling?” This, to leading man Prince Adu, the most garrulous (though not necessarily the least inspired) of the improvisers who populate Sean (Greg the Bunny) Baker’s sentimental echo of the Dardennes brothers’ The Child. Adu plays Lucky, the West African street hawker of designer knockoffs on whose doorstep is dumped the awesomely cute little snot-nose who sets his paternal heart thumping. Along the way, disjointed subplots threaten to intersect, a handful of New York types undergo cursory development along predictable lines, and rare, muted snatches of real poetry manage to filter through the incessant histrionics. (Regent, Sun., June 22, 7 p.m. and Mon., June 23, 1:45 p.m.; The Landmark, Thurs., June 26, 4:30 p.m.) (RS)


THING WITH NO NAME (South Africa/USA) Like Lord Voldemort, AIDS in South Africa is so frightening to many that it’s not referred to by name but instead by various oblique descriptors; the disease thus undefined, it’s harder to teach locals to treat it as a tangible, preventable thing. Documentarian Sarah Friedland tries to put a face on this situation by showing us the lives of two women living with full-blown AIDS: elderly Ntombelini and 33-year-old Danisile. The challenge of a film like this lies in getting an audience to invest emotionally in people who they know will likely be dead by the end, and Friedland doesn’t quite achieve that. (Perhaps focusing on only one subject would have allowed for more identification.) It doesn’t help that the soundtrack’s constant high-pitched squeals and tin drums feel like sonic assaults. (Regent, Sat., June 21, 2 p.m.; The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 10 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Fri., June 27, 4:30 p.m.) (LYT)


GO  TRICKS (Poland) This mostly charming Polish comedy concerns the efforts of 6-year-old Stefek (Damian Ul) to cajole his estranged father back toward their family. The familiar premise is made appealing by the whimsical indirectness of the boy’s approach. The title refers to a series of sly, fate-altering tactics practiced by our hero and his resourceful teenage sister (Ewelina Walendziak); it’s a credit to writer-director Andrzej Jakimowski that this film about carefully wrought contrivance has a winning sense of spontaneity. (The Landmark, Fri., June 20, 4 p.m.; AMC Avco Center, Sun., June 22, 7 p.m.) (Adam Nayman)


TRINIDAD (USA) Gender dystopia finds its ultimate remedy in Trinidad, Colorado, “sex-change capital of the world,” as evidenced in this interesting documentary that sheds light upon a highly marginalized community. The efforts of three prominent transsexual citizens to build a recovery house for post-op patients prove that the pioneer spirit is still alive in this quaint Western town. There is much bowling, golfing, bronc riding and analysis of the transsexual condition, but if graphic footage of gender-reassignment surgery makes you queasy, then this film may not be for you. (Majestic Crest, Sun., June 22, 4:30 p.m.; Mann Festival, Mon., June 23, 4:30 p.m.; Italian Cultural Institute, Fri., June 27, 7 p.m.) (JT)


GO  USELESS (China) Like his Still Life, Jia Zhanke’s Useless is a sort of doc-fiction hybrid, though it’s slanted more toward the former. Jia’s unostentatiously gorgeous film takes a hard look at the indignities of industrial employment in China. It also gets at something more slippery (and less familiar to festival-circuit docs): the contradictions of high-end “handmade” aesthetics. We’re never asked to judge Shanghai-based designer Ma Ke as she describes the particulars of her new Paris-feted collection — clothes buried in the ground for that literal salt-of-the-earth feeling — but a sequence depicting a group of miners trying to get that dirt off their shoulders speaks (or, this being a Jia film, whispers) volumes. (The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 7 p.m.; Regent, Mon., June 23, 9:30 p.m.) (AN)


GO  VISUAL ACOUSTICS: THE MODERNISM OF JULIUS SHULMAN (USA) Architectural photographer Shulman — whose profound engagement with the houses of Neutra, Schindler, Koenig, Lautner, et al. did more to mythologize mid-’50s California Modern than the many thousands of words published alongside his work in Time, Life and House & Garden — is 97 and still swimming against the tide of Postmodernism. Although filmmaker Eric Bricker’s intentions, at once didactic and valedictory, would have been more effectively realized had he spent less time fine-tuning his swooshing PowerPoint aesthetic and more of it orchestrating the conversation among his talking heads, the photographs, Shulman himself and DP Dante Spinotti’s way with a tracking shot more than compensate for the lack of structural integrity. (The Landmark, Sun., June 22, 4 p.m.; Billy Wilder Theater, Wed., June 25, 4 p.m.) (RS)



WHEN CLOUDS CLEAR (Ecuador/USA) When Clouds Clear is an ironic title for a blurry documentary. Anne Slick and Danielle Bernstein’s film about an isolated Andean community desperately fending off the advances of mining firms is rife with incident (including footage of violent clashes between villagers and company representatives) but short on measured analysis. It’s also shapeless: The chronology of events seems fuzzy, and while the filmmakers’ insistence that their subjects speak for themselves is admirable, the interview segments eventually start to feel redundant. (The Landmark, Sat., June 21, 10 p.m.; Regent, Sun., June 22, 1:30 p.m.) (AN)


GO  WHERE ARE THEIR STORIES? The influence of Carlos Reygadas is unmistakable on writer-director-editor Nicolás Pereda’s impressive debut feature, in which the grandson of a dying Mexican woman travels from the Puebla countryside to Mexico City in an effort to stop his aunts and uncles from selling the old woman’s land out from under her before she has taken her last breath. Running a mere 70 minutes and composed of long, largely wordless, single-shot sequences, Where Are Their Stories? suffers from a smattering of self-consciously arty affectations (the opening titles don’t appear until 20 minutes into the film), but it’s mostly a controlled, beautifully observed rumination on stasis, change and the things in life to which we don’t pay enough mind. (AMC Avco Center, Sat., June 21, 4:30 p.m.; The Landmark, Wed., June 25, 7 p.m.) (SF)


GO  WONDERFUL TOWN (Thailand) A Bangkok architect heads to a seaside Thai town to build a new resort complex and falls in love with a winsome hotel owner; their tentative romance is a sign of life in a landscape devastated by natural disaster. For his feature debut, Thai writer-director Aditya Assarat adopts a contemplative groove that owes debts to Asian art-house contemporaries Tsai Ming-Liang and Jia Zhangke. But if Wonderful Town’s aesthetics seem borrowed, its subject — village life in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami — feels piercingly specific. (AMC Avco Center, Sat., June 21, 7 p.m.; The Landmark, Tues., June 24, 9:45 p.m.) (AN)


CRITIC’S PICK  YOU, THE LIVING (Sweden) Too easy to call it Songs From the Second Tier, but the fact is that Roy Andersson’s follow-up to his much-admired millennial horror-show Songs From the Second Floor lacks that film’s concentration — even as it replicates its episodic structure, rueful humanism and basic aesthetic (what a colleague aptly describes as “New Yorker cartoons by Bergman”). But there are still enough beautiful, sui generis moments here for 10 films. Andersson’s static frames are among the most impeccably composed in contemporary cinema, conducive to both slow-burn slapstick (the most brilliant gag involves a clumsily removed tablecloth) and patiently unfurled beauty. A scene placing a pair of newlyweds in their (unexpectedly) mobile home is both an elegant visual joke and a plangent depiction of the desire to belong — a grateful moment of connection. (Billy Wilder Theater, Mon., June 23, 10 p.m. and Thurs., June 26, 4:30 p.m.) (Adam Nayman)


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