As it enters its 19th year, the American Film Institute’s annual AFI
Fest remains mired in a long-running identity crisis. Is it an important local
showcase for the best recent offerings of world and American independent cinema?
The lap dog of Hollywood, a staging ground for black-tie premieres of soon-to-be-released
Oscar hopefuls? Or a gathering of global film-industry professionals on a par
with the world’s leading film festivals?
AFI Fest tries to be all things to all people, occasionally succeeding but more
often resembling some hand-me-down patchwork doll with one leg longer than the
other and mismatched-button eyes. If that sounds harsh, I hasten to add that
the news isn’t all bad: As the festival preview that follows attests, the next
10 days will bring with them a sampling of worthy films from all corners of
the globe, most screening locally for the first time. But I wouldn’t be doing
my job if I didn’t say that something strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed
about a supposedly international film festival in which 34 of the 92 features
are American productions or co-productions; in which the country with the second
largest number of films in the program, Germany, hasn’t been a vital player
on the world cinema stage in decades; and in which a sidebar of five Johnny
Depp films qualifies as a retrospective. (Me, I’ll be opting for the concurrent
Naruse Mikio series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.)
Almost none of the best offerings from the recent festival season are here —
Hong Sang-Soo’s puzzle-box romantic drama, Tale of Cinema; Singapore
director Eric Khoo’s Be With Me, an audience favorite at Telluride and
Toronto; Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers, which won the best-director
prize at Venice; and Cristi Puiu’s razor-sharp gallows comedy The Death of
Mr. Lazarescu
, which collected the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes. And
that is to say nothing of the great films of 2004 and even 2003 — Marco Bellocchio’s
Good Morning, Night; Claire Denis’ L’Intrus; Theo Angelopoulos’
The Weeping Meadow; Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos — that have
yet to receive so much as a single Los Angeles screening. The reasons are legion,
and no doubt the AFI Fest organizers would be quick to reply that they have
sought out some of these very films only to be rebuffed by distributors and/or
sales agents. Granted this is a clear and present dilemma, but so is that of
a festival that continues, against all reason, to put quantity — its total number
of world and North American premieres — ahead of quality.
This whoring-for-premieres syndrome can bedevil the best of festivals. But while
the big boys (Berlin, Cannes and Venice — and, for American indies, Sundance),
through a combination of longevity, reputation and positioning on the calendar,
can rest assured that they’ll always have a ripe crop of titles to choose from,
AFI Fest — owing to its relative youth and its early-November timing — serves
as little more than a runoff gutter for films rejected by larger outfits. No
filmmaker with any knowledge of the festival circuit would turn down an invite
to one of those festivals in favor of AFI Fest. Nor does that situation look
to change anytime soon, barring some sudden shift in the cabin pressure of the
festival universe.
Yet, the impulse remains — the lust to be the festival that discovers the next
Sex, Lies and Videotape or Pulp Fiction — no matter how compelling
the evidence that there simply aren’t that many good films to go around. From
Fresno to Frankfurt, the world is now saturated with film festivals, but the
most meaningful discoveries continue to be made by Sundance, Berlin, Cannes,
Venice and Toronto, as well as a vital secondary tier of festivals that includes
Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary and Locarno. The others, to the extent that they insist
on premieres, serve mainly to give false hope to filmmakers who should probably
consider other career paths. AFI Fest might do well to take a page (or two)
from the playbooks of the New York, Chicago and San Francisco film festivals,
which long ago resolved to service their hometown crowds with the best films
available at that particular moment — no strings attached — resulting in a festival-of-festivals
atmosphere to which no single film event in Los Angeles can lay claim. (And
I include the Los Angeles Film Festival in that assessment, despite the leaps
and bounds by which it has improved in recent years.)
I fear this may be a rhetorical discussion, in that local audiences seem pacified
by AFI Fest — at least if festival attendance (which has steadily risen since
the event relocated to the ArcLight Cinemas in 2002) is any indication — suggesting
that the Los Angeles moviegoer is little more adventurous than the international
traveler who heads straight for the nearest McDonald’s rather than sampling
the regional cuisine.
More on that later. For now, here’s our guide to the good, the bad and the ugly
of AFI Fest 2005. Films are listed chronologically, based on the date and time
of their first screening. Recommended titles are preceded by an asterisk. Films
not premiering until the festival’s second weekend will be reviewed in next
week’s issue.
*TSOTSI (South Africa/UK)
There’s a spine-tingling moment in Tsotsi that knowingly evokes Frankenstein:
The title character runs across an open field in the dark of night as lightning
streaks the sky; moments later, in silhouette, he lumbers down a suburban street
while its inhabitants sleep. What follows is a sublime sleight of hand. We first
see Tsotsi (it means “thug”) as the conscience-free, violent leader of a street
gang. After assaulting an underling, he carjacks a young mother and inadvertently
takes her baby, setting in motion an unraveling of personal history and memory
that shows how this “monster” was created. His past glints in wrenching flashback
scenes, unearthing long-repressed emotions for Tsotsi while slowly humanizing
him for the viewer. Expediting that process is a second young mother whom Tsotsi
forces at gunpoint to breastfeed his new “son,” and whose own tragedy sparks
empathy in the hard young man. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, the film moves
quickly, packing in a lot of information, but it never feels rushed or overstuffed.
Nor is the character’s unraveling anything less than believable, thanks to newcomer
Presley Chweneyagae’s intuitive, intelligent grasp of Tsotsi’s gnarled inner
life. Director Gavin Hood, who also adapted the screenplay, uses lighting magnificently,
veering from dramatic starkness to a honeyed glow; both approaches underline
the harshness of the world captured while homing in on shards of beauty. But
what makes the film so powerful is its delicate weaving of sociological threads
— how home-and-hearth violence can bloom into large-scale chaos, and how those
damaged children cast to society’s margins will eventually make their way back
to the center. It’s not new information, but in the hands of Hood and his cast,
it is wrenching. (ArcLight 11, Fri., Nov. 4, 7:15 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 3 p.m.)
(Ernest Hardy)
A DIOS MOMO (Uruguay)
A magical, mystical mess. Illiterate 11-year-old paperboy Obdulio lives with
his spiritualist grandmother and two young sisters. Into his tightly circumscribed
world wanders the mysterious Maestro, who teaches him to read and decode the
power of language; a troupe of street performers who adopt him as a mascot;
and a wise bartender with life lessons on tap. It all takes place against the
backdrop of Carnival. What’s meant to be charming, spiritually affirming and
surreal is leaden and tedious — and horribly acted. (ArcLight 12, Fri., Nov.
4, 6:45 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 12:30 p.m.)
(EH)
SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS (Germany)
It’s easy to see why German filmmakers keep resurrecting the story of Sophie
Scholl, a leader of one of the few pockets of student resistance to the Third
Reich. But though Marc Rothemund brings long-buried evidence to his re-enactment
of Scholl’s last days in prison, his plodding drama, marginally enlivened by
fine performances from Julia Jentsch as Sophie and Alexander Held as her interrogator,
adds little to what we already know about the forces that shaped this devout
young Christian. (ArcLight 14, Fri., Nov. 4, 7 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 3:15 p.m.)
(Ella Taylor)
*AFTER INNOCENCE (USA)
Sometimes “blind” justice may be too blind for its own good, according to Jessica
Sanders’ angry and unsettling portrait of seven wrongfully imprisoned men whose
convictions were overturned by DNA evidence. Some of Sanders’ subjects nevertheless
remain behind bars for years, mired in red tape and the self-serving efforts
of local authorities to keep them there. All Sanders’ subjects discover that
exoneration is just the beginning of a long and winding road to freedom in a
society where the guilty make front-page news and the innocent are, too often,
little more than an afterthought. (ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 4, 7:15 p.m.;
ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 6, 12:45 p.m.)
(Scott Foundas)
THE BIG WHITE (USA)
It’s probably apt that this Fargo rip-off — featuring Robin Williams
as a desperate man caught up in a grisly insurance fraud scheme — is set in
an icy Alaskan outpost, because all director Mark Mylod’s film does is aimlessly
slip and slide. The clammy eccentricity on display — Giovanni Ribisi’s nervy
claims adjuster, Tim Blake Nelson’s pussycat kidnapper and Holly Hunter’s Tourette’s-afflicted
wife — is like a wet blanket, while Colin Friesen’s lazy screenplay has all
the wit of a slushball. March of the Penguins was funnier and edgier.
(ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 4, 9:45 p.m.) (Robert Abele)
IN BED (Chile/Germany)
Two strangers have sex and talk, talk, talk in this broadly familiar Chilean
quickie, set entirely in a motel bedroom. The film is less pretentious than
9 Songs but — despite the heat — not nearly as cathartic as Before
Sunrise
. (Imagine if Jesse and Celine had screwed on the train and then
turned out to be really vapid people.) In Bed works best as a study of
two body textures, despite a contrived eleventh-hour twist clearly meant to
push it beyond intellectualized softcore. (ArcLight 14, Fri., Nov. 4, 9:45
p.m.; ArcLight 10, Sat., Nov. 5, 2:30 p.m.)
(Ben Kenigsberg)
06/05 (Netherlands)
Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in November, 2004, in retaliation
against his short film Submission, a coarse condemnation of the misogyny
inherent in Islamic fundamentalism. There may be an emotional imperative to
look kindly upon van Gogh’s last completed feature, but 06/05 is simply
dreadful, seizing on the death of Pim Fortuyn — the right-wing politician who
shared van Gogh’s anti-immigration views and, ultimately, his same terrible
fate — as the excuse for a glib speculative thriller. (ArcLight 11, Fri.,
Nov. 4, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 6, 1 p.m.)
(Jessica Winter)
*BURNING MAN: BEYOND BLACK ROCK (USA)
For one week annually, a desert lake bed becomes Nevada’s fifth-biggest city
as 30,000 artists and citizens hoist their freak-flag at the Burning Man festival.
Following several artists as they build odd installations and massive live-in
artworks, this documentary is a stirring, hilarious and wise account of smart,
witty misfits yearning for release from “the default world” and expending inordinate
amounts of creativity and ingenuity to do so. If you’ve ever dismissed Burning
Man as a gathering of the unwashed and unemployed, this movie may inspire you
to show up next time. (ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 4, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sat.,
Nov. 5, 3:30 p.m.)
(John Patterson)
*WRONG SIDE UP (Czech Republic)
Woe to be Peter, a morose, Keatonesque Prague airport worker who hasn’t yet
gotten over his ex-girlfriend. But whoa to be Peter, whose side job is getting
paid by his neighbors to watch them have sex. Adapting his play Tales of
Common Insanity
, writer-director Petr Zelenka proves himself a small-scale
maestro of eccentric humanism. Following the droll adventures of Peter and his
father, a former narrator for Communist-era newsreels, the expertly conceived
Wrong Side Up bubbles over with warmth and peculiarity. Zelenka’s doing
something unique for the Czech Republic, and deserves more credit than he’s
usually given for it. (ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 5, 6 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 6, 3:15
p.m.)
(Mark Peranson)
*ANTIBODIES (Germany)
A vicious killer of children has been apprehended in Berlin and at first that’s
good news for Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a rural farmer and constable
haunted by the unsolved murder of a local girl. Yet, the killer (a very creepy
André Hennicke) says he didn’t do that particular killing but witnessed who
did, and soon manipulates Martens into an unnerving game of cat-and-mouse. There
are plot twists aplenty in this thriller from writer-director Christian Alvart,
but what makes the film so riveting is Möhring’s moving portrait of a deeply
religious, upright man coming face to face with his own darker instincts. The
ending alone should inspire some lively walk-to-the-lobby conversation. (ArcLight
13, Sat., Nov. 5, 8:45 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 7, 12:30 p.m.)
(Chuck Wilson)
SCREAMING MASTERPIECE (Iceland)
If your knowledge of Iceland’s trendy music scene is limited to Sigur Rós and
Björk, Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon’s documentary will illuminate the country’s
diverse sounds. Unfortunately, because the film crams in so many unheralded
bands — everything from rap-rock combos to an all-keyboard outfit — very few
of them linger onscreen long enough to make much of an impact. You end up wishing
Magnússon had focused more on Iceland’s two flagship artists, whose brief, dynamic
live performances are easily the highlight. (ArcLight 14, Sat., Nov. 5, 9
p.m.; ArcLight 11, Sun., Nov. 6, 3:45 p.m.)
(Tim Grierson)
THE GIGOLOS (U.K.)
Co-writer-director Richard Bracewell swathes his portrait of London’s male-escort
world in seductive, saxophone-soaked atmosphere, but what he really needs is
a sense of humor about his blank, self-obsessed characters. Sacha and his “valet”
Trevor move in the twilight world of Versace and aging Grand Dames, while Bracewell
insists we take their pouting ennui and lonely pangs seriously. No can do. (ArcLight
14, Sun., Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 7, 4:15 p.m.)
(Paul
Malcolm)
THE WEDDING PARTY (Germany)
It’s not quite the Alamo, but there’s a standoff taking place at a fancy country
wedding. The groom’s boorish father has refused to pay for the dinner for 15
that he himself ruined, and so, quite sensibly, the innkeeper has taken the
bride and her new mother-in-law as human collateral. While he caps the film
with an involving action finale — a flurry of accidental shootings — director
Dominique Deruddere’s approach is way too serious to take full comic advantage
of such an absurd premise. (ArcLight 11, Sun., Nov. 6, 9 p.m.; ArcLight 12,
Mon., Nov. 7, 3:45 p.m.)
(CW)
THE SUSPECT (Japan)
This fourth feature spinoff from the Japanese TV series Bayside Shakedown
is an oddly suspense-free police procedural. It gets off to a good, fast start
as a tough cop is elaborately framed so as to force him to drop a case, then
subsides into lump-in-the-throat hero worship. Director Ryoichi Kimizuka seems
to understand the problem: As the accused cop, Toshiro Yanagiba pushes the stoic
modern-day samurai act way too far, but just when you start wishing you could
slap him, someone does. (ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 6, 9:15 p.m.; ArcLight 10,
Mon., Nov. 7, noon)
(David Chute)
*7 VIRGINS (Spain)
On 48-hour leave from a Seville reform school, 16-year-old Tano (Juan Jose Ballesta)
connects up with his best buddy and they set off to do what street kids in European
movies so often do: goof on girls, tussle with rival street gangs and deride
the “chumps” who work real jobs. There’s nothing new here, but that shouldn’t
distract from director Alberto Rodriguez’s fluid visual style or his deep feeling
for the lightning-fast mood shifts that govern a teenager’s day. Tano and his
friends keep moving, trying to outrace, as if by instinct, the soul-shifting
disappointments that all too often turn sweet boys into mean men. (ArcLight
12, Sun., Nov. 6, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Tues., Nov. 8, 4:15 p.m.)
(CW)
FATELESS (Germany/Hungary/U.K.)
A disaffected Hungarian teenager (Marcell Nagy) endures Buchenwald but further
loses his sense of identity in this intermittently effective Holocaust film,
adapted by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész from his own novel and directed by cinematographer
Lajos Koltai. The depiction of Jews as active participants in their survival
provides a counterpoint to The Pianist’s portrait of a man buffeted by
circumstance, although the theme’s inherent power is often diluted by sepia
visuals, prettified snowfalls and composer Ennio Morricone’s jaunty melodic
uplift. (ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 7, 6:45 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 9, 12:30 p.m.)
(BK)
*C.R.A.Z.Y. (Canada)
An ensemble of deft performances and a kick-ass soundtrack (including Charles
Aznavour, Patsy Cline, Pink Floyd and David Bowie) bring vivid life to co-writer-director
Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age/coming-out tale. Born in Quebec on Christmas
Day 1960, Zachary begins a search for self that carries him from the narrow
confines of his working-class French-Canadian family to Israel’s gay night-club
scene and back again. Vallée stirs a few daydreams and visions into the ordinary
joys and heartaches that drive the film, edging his sharp eye for period detail
with a touch of the fantastic. (ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 7, 7 p.m.; ArcLight
11, Tues., Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.)
(PM)
*FUCK (USA)
Profound and joyously silly at the same time, this documentary about our most
potent secular blasphemy comes at its subject from every angle: its awesome
power to offend the listener while empowering its speaker; its obscure etymological
origins; its centrality to issues of free speech from Lenny Bruce to recent
FCC fines; the determination of right-wingers to suppress it and of comedians
to shout it from the hilltops. Witnesses from all sides are consulted ­— Pat
Boone vs. Kevin Smith; Dennis Prager vs. Ice-T ­— and a mere monosyllable emerges
as a heavily disputed cultural totem and taboo. (ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov.
7, 7 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 9, 4 p.m.)
(JP)
ADDICTION (Finland)
Successful mother, wife and advertising executive Jonna (Mi Grönlund) has just
one problem with her perfect life — she’s hooked on naughty softcore sex with
random strangers! Sorry, guys, this isn’t a guilty-pleasure foreign-language
smut film; director Minna Virtanen actually expects us to agonize over Jonna’s
downward spiral from pillar of the community to desperate sex addict. The kinky
stuff is jammed into the first hour; after that it’s mostly a cold shower of
half-baked character drama and tsk-tsk high-mindedness. (ArcLight 13, Mon.,
Nov. 7, 9:15 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 8, 1 p.m.)
(TG)
IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (USA)
The aroma of Hollywood hipster-insider chic wafts thickly from this story of
a dying, once-powerful producer who enlists one of his sons to film his last
days. But Papa kicks the bucket as soon as the opening credits end and Father
becomes a look at the spoiled, largely irredeemable inhabitants of Paris Hiltonville,
as an impromptu wake brings out the booze, the dope and the trust-fund posse.
The film switches gears near the end, swelling into a crescendo of tears and
redemption that is almost effective enough to make you forget that the preceding
80 minutes have been near insufferable. Cast with a who’s who (Jeremy Sisto,
Matt Keeslar, Judy Greer) of Hollywood hotties. (ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov.
7, 9:30 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 8, 1:30 p.m.)
(EH)
BUCKLE BROTHERS (USA)
Four kids from Compton and South-Central avoid life on the streets by trying
their hands at bull riding — which seems an esoteric choice of sport at first
and basically still does after 75 minutes. The subjects’ optimism is remarkable,
but this superficial doc cries out for more history and social context; a strand
involving Jazmine, a cowgirl consistently barred from competing because of possible
“gender-specific injuries,” gets a particularly limited treatment. Copious rodeo
footage seems mostly like padding. (ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 7, 10 p.m.; Tues.,
Nov. 8, 12:30 p.m.)
(BK)
HORST BUCHHOLZ … MEIN PAPA (Germany)
There’s something almost comical about actor-director Christopher Buchholz’s
futile attempt (with Sandra Hacker) to open up his famously beautiful and recalcitrant
actor father shortly before his sudden death in 2003. Frail and grumpy, the
senior Buchholz is appalled by introspection, which may be just as well given
that his career was derailed by an unerring gift for self-destruction. The movie’s
inadvertent and moving subject is the enduring bewilderment of his two grown
children, who can only guess at who Dad was, and what that makes them. (ArcLight
14, Mon., Nov. 7, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Tues., Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.)
(ET)

[

*MUTUAL APPRECIATION

Funny Ha Ha director Andrew Bujalski’s latest is another baggy,
ingratiating romp through post-collegiate anomie, awkward courtship rituals,
and uncomfortable silences. This time the setting is New York City, where Alan
(Justin Rice) is an indie-rock musician trying to go solo, while poorly suppressing
his growing attraction to Ellie (Rachel Clift), who happens to be the girlfriend
of Alan’s best friend, Lawrence (well played by Bujalski himself). As before,
Bujalski’s preference for nonprofessional actors and his adept use of a roving,
handheld camera lend the film a terrific, invigorating energy, as does his ear
for the rhythms of conversation among bright young 20-somethings trying to establish
toeholds in a strange and forbidding grown-up world. (ArcLight 13,
Tues., Nov. 8, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Thurs., Nov. 10, 1 p.m.)
(SF)
*BACK TO BOSNIA (Bosnia/USA)
Director Sabina Vajraca’s personal documentary wields a high-concept hook: her
family’s return to their hometown of Banja Luka for the first time since the
Bosnian war, in the hopes of reclaiming their stolen apartment. But unlike her
American documentarian counterparts who shamelessly thrust themselves into the
action, Vajraca is remarkably unobtrusive. Her digital camera quietly observes
this haunted tour of an ethnically cleansed city, and the result is a lo-fi
home movie of a genocide still largely forgotten by the West. The concluding
showdown between Vajraca’s family and the apartment’s new tenants is merely
the last of several unexpected, utterly moving moments. (ArcLight 12, Tues.,
Nov. 8, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Wed., Nov. 9, 1 p.m.)
(TG)
ZOZO (Sweden)
Being a big fish in a small pond goes to a director’s head, so no surprise that
Swedish-based, Lebanese-born director Josef Fares has followed up his two domestically
popular, overrated comedies (Jalla! Jalla! and Kopps) with a middling
film of quality. During the Lebanese Civil War, a Fares surrogate escapes the
horrors of internecine conflict only to confront a new kind of disgust in his
adopted home: glib racism. Fares first attempts to impress with dramatic, clichéd
Scope compositions before trying his hand at small-scale character drama, but
his filmmaking remains derivative throughout. Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s official
foreign-language Oscar submission. (ArcLight 13, Tues., Nov. 8, 7:15 p.m.;
ArcLight 11, Wed., Nov. 9, noon)
(MP)
ALMOST HEAVEN (Germany)
Helen, a terminally ill young German wife obsessed with country music, has one
last wish — to sing in Nashville. When her overprotective husband shoots down
that dream, she secretly buys a ticket to America. A series of screw-ups lands
her in Jamaica, however, and Heaven proceeds to dole out the contrived,
life-affirming lessons for which celluloid is too often sacrificed. From the
moment Helen lands on the island, nothing in the film rings true — her grating
naiveté, the sadistic heaping of misadventures upon her, or the last-act friendship
she forges with the native single mom who repeatedly scams, endangers and smacks
her. (ArcLight 11, Tues., Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Wed., Nov. 9, 3:30
p.m.)
(EH)
PRINCESS RACCOON (Japan)
Elder postmodernist statesman Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded
To Kill
) shows no signs of tossing in the towel with this boldly insane
offering, a stage-bound, folklore-based Japanese operetta starring everyone’s
It girl Zhang Ziyi and Japanese It boy Joe Odagiri as star-crossed lovers. What
exactly goes on here is nigh impossible to explain, but among the mishmash of
musical styles one finds loose approximations of prewar Japanese pop, Broadway
show tunes and hip-hop. Suzuki has many defenders on this one, but the cumulative,
charmless effort made me feel like someone was slamming a screwdriver into my
skull. (ArcLight 14, Tues., Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Thurs., Nov.
10, 12:15 p.m.)
(MP)
AMU (India)
Indian-born, Los Angeles–raised Kaju (Konkona Sen Sharma) returns to the subcontinent
for a cultural awakening and receives an education in the massacre of thousands
of Sikhs during the riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination.
If the film is important for broaching a historical episode about which reliable
information remains scarce in India (figures still vary on the death count,
running as high as 10,000), the preachy, earnest delivery elicits only passive
awareness, not outrage. (ArcLight 11, Wed., Nov. 9, 7 p.m.; ArcLight 14,
Fri., Nov. 11, 12:45 p.m.)
(BK)
*THE REFUGEE ALL STARS (USA)
The civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002 is often overlooked
in the cataloging of modern bloody conflicts, despite its recentness and the
tens of thousands of lives lost. Refugee follows six people who fled
for neighboring Guinea, then formed a band to entertain fellow refugee-camp
dwellers and also to tell their own stories. The documentary, filled with gruesome
file footage, determinedly arcs toward uplift and is filled with fantastic live
performances. But most powerful of all are the testimonials from those who survived
unimaginable torture: One man, face scarred and a hand chopped off, tells of
being forced to beat his infant son to death with a mortar and pestle. (ArcLight
12, Wed., Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 11, 4:15 p.m.)
(EH)
*WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE (Israel)
Interweaving tales of grunt-work exploitation make up writer-director Eyal Halfon’s
expansive, multicultural view of Israel. A Ukrainian illegal immigrant (Evelyne
Kaplun) is spared a sex slavery fate due to a facial birthmark; the Thai employees
of a cuckolded farmer (Avi Oria) are systematically harassed by the local ranger;
and a conscience-stricken ex-cop (Uri Gavriel) finds himself under the thumb
of a gangster. The movie seems unwieldy early on, but Halfon threads a genuine
sweetness through his clear-eyed tapestry of a country’s migrant makeup. His
bruised characters thrive as long as their curiosity — about life’s beauty,
the mysteries of compassion, the hardships of others — is aflame. (ArcLight
14, Wed., Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m.)
(RA)
*DARK HORSE (Denmark)
The sophomore feature from Danish director Dagur Kari (Noi Albinoi) is
an amiable shaggy-dog story about unemployed misfits in Copenhagen, shot in
beautifully grainy black and white that recalls Robby Muller’s work for Wim
Wenders. A dreamy, not-quite-shapeless narrative, Dark Horse follows
penniless graffiti artist Daniel (Jakob Cedergren) as he falls in love with
acid-loving shopgirl Franc (Tilly Scott). With a dry, deadpan wit reminiscent
of Jarmusch and Kaurismäki, Kari draws an affectionate portrait of aimless young
people, and his single, five-second use of color footage is an utterly transcendent
moment. (ArcLight 11, Wed., Nov. 9, 9:45 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 11, 4 p.m.)
(JP)
FOUR CORNERS OF SUBURBIA (USA)
Adapting her chamber-piece play about a tumultuous weekend getaway for a married
couple and their friends, writer-director Elizabeth Puccini ably finesses the
uncinematic aspects of her source material — its claustrophobic setting, its
heavy emphasis on talk. But despite the empathetic work of her strong cast,
led by Mädchen Amick and Paul Blackthorne, Puccini’s feature debut is ultimately
one more relationship drama about middle-class white people dabbling in meaningless
affairs and very serious discussions about Love, Life, Science and Art. (ArcLight
13, Wed., Nov. 9, 10 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 11, 12:30 p.m.)
(TG)
THE RED SHOES (South Korea)
First of all, the pumps that wreak jealousy-fueled, nightmare-laden, dismembering
havoc in this high-strung horror take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale are
more like a creamy pink. But there’s no mistaking the color of the oceans of
blood that course through Kim Yong-Gyun’s dingily lit, eerily scored spookfest
about the freakiness that follows a mother (Kim Hye-Su) and her ballerina daughter
(Park Yeon-Ah) after Mom picks up the titular footwear in a subway. True to
Asian fright-flick form, there’s ghostly injustice and a twisty end, but also
a few too many nagging stylistic familiarities. (ArcLight 14, Wed., Nov.
9, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 11, 9:45 p.m.)
(RA)
*DESIRE (USA)
Encouraging them to document their own lives, filmmaker Julie Gustafson gave
video cameras to five young women in New Orleans, including two teenagers from
the Desire housing project and two from a fancy private school. The resulting
shorts have been mixed into a poignant documentary that’s low on melodrama but
rich with insight into how the smallest decisions can alter a young life forever.
Particularly haunting is Cassandra, who dreams of a career in the military,
only to be sidetracked by single motherhood. Gustafson hasn’t had time to add
a post-hurricane postscript, leaving one to worry over the fate of Cassandra
and her fellow filmmakers. (ArcLight 12, Thurs., Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m.; Sat.,
Nov. 12, 12:45 p.m.)
(CW)
*THE ART OF FLIGHT (Egypt/Sudan)
Freelance journalist Davin Hitchens throws a crucial light on another side of
the tragedy in the Sudan: The plight of Sudanese refugees, thousands of whom
have fled their war-torn country only to face new challenges in foreign lands,
their fates in the hands of openly hostile locals and a broken United Nations
bureaucracy. Expatriate American Hitchens, digital camera in hand, explores
the hardships of living in-between, forever en route, through intimate portraits
of Sudanese artists, scholars and activists living in Cairo. Shot illegally,
the film exposes the racist, oppressive policies of a supposed U.S. ally in
the War on Terror. (ArcLight 13, Thurs., Nov. 10, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Fri.,
Nov. 11, 1 p.m.)
(PM)
NEXT DOOR (Norway)
After Norwegian Everyman John’s girlfriend dumps him, an erotic opportunity
is provided by the creepy sexpot sisters living next door. But, really, when
does that ever work out? Toiling in typical midnight-movie vocabulary, and occasionally
succeeding — such as a scene where an amorous encounter transmogrifies into
a bar-none bare-knuckle brawl — director Pål Sletaune (Junk Mail) attempts
a Polanski, but comes up nasty, brutish and short. Though not short enough.
(ArcLight 11, Thurs., Nov. 10, 10 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 13, 4 p.m.) (MP)

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.