SIFF Week 2: Picks & Pans

Wednesday, May 26

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

Devil’s Town

In tennis-mad Belgrade, this dark comedy is set among the mostly ridiculous politicians, mistresses, mobsters, rich kids, and tennis brats who fixate on that game’s Serbian stars—e.g., Jelena Jankovic—rather than consider their own lives or their nation’s recent history. It’s a broad mandate, and Devil’s Town is a broad comedy. A businessman returning to his homeland grouses, “Everyone wants a bribe.” It’s not just an expectation in this culture of corruption, but a national right. All the characters in Vladimir Paskaljevic’s debut feature are connected, but to find out how means detours through whorehouses, rabbit farms, hospitals, and yachts where money (or sex) is exchanged for services. Murders are attempted, many tennis balls hit, and a foolish filmmaker begs his dying father for the money to back a movie. (First he’ll win an Oscar, he says, then make the Serbian epic that explains their misunderstood country to the world.) Unlike the grim new cinema from Romania, similarly benighted in the post-Soviet era, the spirit here is one of disgusted laughter. Moments of tenderness are few, and generally among those with no money and no prospects. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 4 p.m. Mon., May 31.)

7 p.m., Egyptian

Night Catches Us

In 1976 Philadelphia, a former Black Panther returns home from prison to find a new generation of youth even more aggressive and volatile than the old guard. The cops—predominantly white—are an increasingly invasive presence in his neighborhood, and the racially divided city seems to be eating itself alive. Yet Marcus (Anthony Mackie, of The Hurt Locker and Half Nelson) backs down from no one; he snarls his way through condemnations of both oppressors and misguided radicals. His perfect partner-in-disgust is Patricia (Kerry Washington, Mother and Child), a stern but giving woman also harboring old Black Panther ideals. Unfortunately, she also has a direct family connection to the new era—an angry young cousin who glorifies violence and comes into conflict with Marcus. Another problem: Some suspect Marcus’ involvement in the death of her husband. And the FBI may be spying on these activists. Night Catches Us boasts an amazing soundtrack by the Roots that blends ’70s soul hits with contemporary hip-hop. Similarly, the film incorporates old documentary footage of relevant history into its narrative. Director Tanya Hamilton’s debut feature examines an ugly time in U.S. race relations and makes something explosive yet beautiful out of it. (NR) A.J. TIGNER (Also: 4:30 p.m. Thurs., May 27, and Everett Performing Arts Center, 3 p.m. Sat., May 29.)

7 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema

If you’ve read all the way through the title above, you’ll want to see this film. That means you already know who Mekas is, and you have a taste—endurance?—for the non-narrative cinema that emerged in 1950s New York. Maybe you’ve even stood in line at Anthology Film Archives, which Lithuanian World War II refugee Mekas helped found in 1969. Visionaries director Chuck Workman is a product of that same scene, though he’s best known for his brilliantly edited Oscar montages—especially those sad but gorgeous reels of dead Hollywood stars. He begins this tribute with a similar wordless assembly of images—by Stan Brakhage, Warhol, Paul Strand, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, and others—set to a passage from Holst’s The Planets. After that—well, casual viewers may lose interest. Visionaries moves to a more standard documentary format: interviews, more old clips (now identified), plus many encomiums to the 88-year-old Mekas and plenty of his spry life philosophy. (“I survive on wine, women, and song. Plus cinema!”) Workman is scheduled to attend SIFF with his film. In it, my favorite moment is a very dry Andy Warhol explaining how Mekas got interested in projecting film leader (the blank stuff preceding the actual images). So, says Warhol, “I ran a lot of leader.” And people bought tickets to watch. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 28.)

9 p.m., Uptown


The character-driven drama follows pretty Slovak screwup Albeta and her prettier (and more stable) older sister Tina as they navigate multiculti Dublin. Shot with a gritty mise-en-scène, Foxes’ initial tension seems to be routine sibling rivalry within a system that values foreign women only for their menial labor or hot bods. Mysteriously haunted Albeta flounders from being an au pair, then a waitress, and eventually a mistress to a wealthy hunk. What’s her problem? Our main clue is a photo of her and Tina with a man whose face has been clawed out. A further sign of her despair is a hairstyle that gets progressively more deranged. (Crazy woman, crazy hair.) Despite the heavy-handed symbolism of an actual fox scampering through Dublin and trying to survive, Foxes’ tenor is matter-of-fact realistic, even as the sisters’ fortunes suddenly start to look dismally alike. Secrets are revealed via flashback, and Albeta decides to wreck Tina’s life. The resulting soap opera undercuts the seriousness of their position. These two women are clinging to the threshold of a society whose door only opens so wide. (NR) MARGARET FRIEDMAN (Also: Harvard Exit, 4 p.m. Fri., May 28.)

Thursday, May 27

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

Every Day

Generationally situated somewhere between The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Savages, Every Day casts Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt as the classic caught-in-between boomer couple. Ingredients: two sons (one a gay teenager), an ill old parent suddenly added to their household (Brian Dennehy), plus a dollop of midlife crisis tossed on the suburban salad. The acting, as you’d expect, is fine; though Hunt relies too much on her put-upon, pursed-lip martyrdom face. (Don’t you know who I am? I’m Helen Hunt! Oscar winner! I shouldn’t be appearing in Lifetime movies.) But in fairness—and Every Day is mostly fair to all parties—Richard Levine hasn’t done a bad job with his first movie. A creator of Nip/Tuck, he has fun with the ratings-obsessed TV industry; Schreiber plays a television writer whose boss (Eddie Izzard) demands ever more tawdry plot twists. (“Never underestimate the healing powers of butt plugs and three-ways.”) And the reliably sexy Carla Gugino vamps it up enjoyably as a colleague whom Schreiber ought to resist more strenuously. But he’s weak. We’re all weak. Families are weak—until they somehow pull together and become strong. At 93 minutes, instead of standard TV length, Every Day arcs neatly into familiar prime-time resolution. When it’s over, you expect Jay Leno to be on. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Neptune, 11 a.m. Sat., May 29, and Kirkland Performance Center, 7 p.m. Fri., June 11.)

7 p.m., Uptown


Should I stay or should I go? In the ’80s era of feathered hair and customized El Caminos, Ritchie, 19, is trying to decide whether to get out of his Texas town or prolong his high-school BMOC days even longer via his job at the local roller disco. The latter strategy seems to be working OK for his friends, motocross champ Brent and golden-boy party guy Kenny. Ritchie’s hot ex keeps flirting with him, but makes no demands; and pal Michelle (aka Miss Everyone-but-him-can-see-they’re-perfect-for-each-other) seems reasonably content to be held at arm’s length. This amiably ambling drama is skillfully wrought—especially in its period details, lovingly curated and played for nostalgia, not laughs—but offers no surprises. (One of the characters isn’t going to make it to the end credits, and your guess will be right.) Except for the soundtrack. I’d have thought that in 1983 Texas, a guy’s choices would have been limited to Aerosmith and Ricky Skaggs; but instead here are not only Blondie and New Order, but also After the Fire, Haircut 100, and Modern English. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT (Also: 2:30 p.m. Sat., May 29, and Kirkland Performance Center, 8 p.m. Sun., June 6.)

9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit


Divorce sucks, especially when there are kids involved. Yet Pedro González-Rubio takes a lyrical view of a father and son’s final trip together in Mexico’s breathtaking Banco Chinchorro nature preserve. The boy, about 5, is soon to depart to Rome with his mother. This is father Jorge’s last chance to show Natan his own origins in a coastal fishing community intimately bound to reef and sea. Jorge’s father lives on a stilted shack in a lagoon; from there, the three set out daily to spear fish and catch lobsters to sell, and hunt their evening meal. No TV, no cell phones; for entertainment they hand-feed a baby egret that stilt-walks into their home. It’s a kind of Flipper/Sea Hunt boy’s paradise, where no one wears shoes or worries about tracking sand in the house. (Father and son are played by a real father and son, which gives their bond a natural, tactile intimacy.) Alamar is a gorgeous film, more documentary than narrative, as we watch the underwater diving, fish-gutting, and boat-scrubbing. The movie has little need for dialogue; simple images, like the father and son’s feet touching on a log, communicate all that needs to be said. A postscript informs us that Banco Chinchorro, located just north of Belize on the Yucatán Peninsula, may be declared a World Heritage Site. It’s a proposal that Alamar eloquently supports. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 11 a.m. Sat., May 29.)

9:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Eastern Plays

You don’t see many movies from Bulgaria, and this drama of estranged brothers presents a fairly harsh view of the country. Elder son Christo (usually called Itso) is an artist and former heroin addict, now on methadone and working in a furniture shop. Teenage brother Georgi, living with his father and stepmom, has joined a skinhead gang that attacks a nice Turkish family on vacation in Sofia. Itso, passing by out of chance, intervenes and prevents worse violence. But the two long-separated brothers do recognize each other (their dynamic recalls American History X). The grateful Turkish family has a beautiful daughter, and she and Itso walk about the city, conversing in English and visiting a music club. In these charming, halting scenes, they’re the faces of a new and more tolerant Eastern Europe. Meanwhile on TV, politicians are using rightist gangs like Georgi’s to target Gypsies and consolidate power. Will Georgi be lost to such violence? Eastern Plays resists the pull of melodrama, and Itso refuses to condemn his impressionable brother or denounce him to their father. (Who, in a sad scene, claims Itso is the son setting a bad example.) Yet as the two brothers gradually reconnect, director Kamen Kalev still finds a little hope in this changing corner of Europe. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Uptown, 9:20 p.m. Tues., June 1.)

Friday, May 28

4:30 p.m., Everett Performing Arts Center

Wheedle’s Groove

Basically an in-house production by Light in the Attic Records, this well-crafted doc is a companion to its archival discs from Seattle’s late ’60s and early ’70s. (Director Jennifer Maas is married to the label’s founder, Matt Sullivan, also interviewed in the film.) Narrated by Sir Mix-a-Lot and named for the 2004 compilation album, Wheedle’s Groove is an unabashed celebration of the live-music scene, predominately black, that thrived in the CD before disco, grunge, and hip-hop. Young musicians from that era are now in their ’50s and ’60s, most of them not bitter in their recollections, though few had sustained music careers. The lone exception is Kenny G, who says our rain and isolation helped him and his Franklin High School buddies practice: “If it wasn’t for those rainy days, I wouldn’t be here. Had it been sunny every day, I probably wouldn’t be as good.” His band, Cold, Bold & Together, opened for touring acts like Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool and the Gang, as did other Seattle groups. Does their music hold up? Wrong question. Their 45s are lively, catchy artifacts, cheaply recorded, and very much played, live, rather than programmed by computer. They were good enough to be aired on local radio (KYAC), but leagues below the polish of their contemporaries in L.A. A few Seattle bands tried their luck down there, but as the film sadly relates, none but Kenny G ever caught a break. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: SIFF Cinema, 9:30 p.m. Sun., May 30.)

6:30 p.m., Harvard Exit


The worst violence Sebastian Junger reports in his new book War, based on his Vanity Fair dispatches from Afghanistan, can’t be captured in this excellent companion film. (He co-directs with photographer Tim Hetherington.) Because, really, who can be expected to stand up with a video camera in the middle of a firefight? There is combat in the documentary, but it’s brief and inconclusive. The Taliban are mainly testing the U.S. soldiers at a forward base (named for fallen soldier Juan Restrepo); with their fast, light, and cheap nuisance tactics, they keep our slow, well-funded troops pinned down. And, after untold millions spent to put them there, with the filmmakers regularly visiting for more than a year, U.S. forces just withdrew from the Korengal Valley. In effect, the Taliban won. But the great virtue to Restrepo (and War) is to strip away the geopolitical context in favor of nose-to-the-dirt particulars. War is scary, but these men are here by choice. “You can’t get a better high,” says one grunt after a firefight. “It’s like crack. You can’t top that.” It’s an intensely male environment, where soldiers wrestle half-naked in their free time, lift weights, or dance together to cheesy pop. Venturing to the valley floor, where they conduct useless shuras with village elders—all the young men are fighters up in the hills—it’s a shock to see actual women; you forget they exist in such an environment. Subsequent interviews with the members of Battle Company, safe on leave in Italy, allow them to comment on their deployment. One asks, “What did we achieve?” It’s a rhetorical question that he leaves unanswered. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 3:45 p.m. Sat., May 29.)

7 p.m., Egyptian

Winter’s Bone

Like a Sundance film from the early ’80s (before the festival was so named), this Sundance prize-winner starts grim and finishes grim, with a whole lotta grim in between. It’s based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel about the sort of rural meth-dealin’ Missouri families that used to be called white trash; now we just call them Sundance fodder. Winter’s Bone is essentially a save-the-farm movie, only here the farm is a disheveled home run by 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), whose momma is catatonic and whose daddy is in jail (meth, natch). Without enough food or money, she tends two younger siblings; then the news gets worse. Dad’s skipped bail, and the bail bond is the house. So unless Ree can find her fugitive pappy, she and the kids will be homeless and headed to foster care. Ree’s quest among the homesteads of her extended family is a sullen tour of Ozark poverty and suspicion. She pleads kinship, and doors are slammed in her face (and worse). There’s a tedious kind of integrity to the persistence of both Ree and director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone), but also a failure of filmmaking imagination. Winter’s Bone just trudges forward through a world like Deliverance without the canoeists. (Its one good scene comes late, involving a boat and a corpse.) Meth would make the movie go faster. (R) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 30.)

9:15 p.m., Neptune

Down Terrace

U.K. TV vet Ben Wheatley’s zingy, caustic first feature was co-written by Robin Hill, who stars opposite his real-life father, Robert, as pathetic dad/son kingpins of a two-bit syndicate in Brighton, both recently sprung and back home with constantly aggrieved Mum (an excellent Julia Deakin). Further autobiographical touches—the film was shot in eight days in the house where Robin grew up; his wife plays his pregnant girlfriend—heighten the sense in this kitchen-sink comedy that the greater psychopathological unit is the nuclear, not the crime, family. (NR) MELISSA ANDERSON

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Ride, Rise, Roar

For those who attended one of David Byrne’s two stops in Seattle last year, Ride, Rise, Roar is a behind-the-scenes look at the tour that put the former Talking Heads frontman in a tutu. (Behind him, a trio of dancers did an excellent job of making their choreography look improvised.) For those who missed the Paramount and Benaroya Hall shows, this documentary serves as a decent introduction to Byrne’s fantastic 2008 album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, made with frequent collaborator Brian Eno. The record is solid enough musically not to necessitate much cinematic embellishment from director David Hillman Curtis. But he edits together new angles and ways of seeing what you might’ve missed live. (There’s a reason some people went to see a show twice.) Byrne fans looking for new insights into this musical/cultural chameleon will be disappointed. Those looking for a concert doc that mashes up Talking Heads classics (“Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime”) with one of the best new albums of the last couple years will have a hoot. (NR) CHRIS KORNELIS (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 29, and Everett Performing Arts Center, 9:15 p.m. Thurs., June 3.)

Midnight, Egyptian


Oh, RoboGeisha, I tried to love you. I really did. Plainly designed as a midnight movie, with a Cinderella-style heroine who begs, “Convert me into machine! Like my sister!”, the flick lays on blood, kung fu, bikinis, kabuki makeup, kitschy music, and garish colors with abandon. Breast milk is used as a weapon, and ninja throwing stars are ejected from anuses (with commendable accuracy, it must be noted). But RoboGeisha is a cheap thrill, like The Six Million Dollar Man crossed with the Austin Powers fembots. The dueling bionic sister assassins can only kill their targets so many ways. (Sword from ass, check. Rotating saw blade in mouth, check.) And after a while, even the victim’s death cries get old. (“Aieeee! Fried shrimp in my eyes!”) Even if you’ve never seen this movie before, you’ve probably played with the toy. As heroine Yoshie says, “I can’t believe I’m a Transformer.” Yes, believe it—just like the one you bought at RoboGeishas R Us. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Neptune, 10 p.m. Tues., June 8.)

Saturday, May 29

6 p.m., Neptune

Mediterranean Food

Sofia (Olivia Molina) has a lot of ambitions. She wants to be a legendary chef. She also wants the love of not one man, but two—straitlaced Toni (Paco León) and leather-jacketed Frank (Alfonso Bassave), who are stepbrothers. She eventually marries Toni (and has three children with him), but that doesn’t stop her from bed-hopping between the two men at the drop of her white chef’s hat. And yet no one seems to mind the sexual arrangement (threesome alert!), since they’re all business partners, too. At their restaurant, Sofia’s veggies make one man cry, and the smell of her lamb dish gives another guy an erection. Mediterranean Food is a film full of food porn and pretty faces. (In particular, Molina’s angular cheekbones and pouty facial expressions make her look like a Spanish Keira Knightley.) But it’s also a movie about selfish, vacuous people who throw Telemundo-worthy fits when they don’t get what they want. Mediterranean Food tries to align its threesome with the lovers in Jules and Jim, but with none of Truffaut’s charm or wit. The relationships here are about as appetizing as a day-old seafood paella. (NR) ERIN K. THOMPSON (Also: 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 30, and Everett Performing Arts Center, 9:15 p.m. Tues., June 1.)

6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Brownstones to Red Dirt

It is heartening to learn that kids still handwrite letters these days, instead of sexting and IMing one another, but the pen-pal conceit of this earnest documentary is entirely contrived. A school project in Brooklyn matches cute tweens with correspondents in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Though not explicitly stated, all the latter appear to be orphans from that country’s horrific civil war, too old for Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie to adopt. Several tell of watching their parents and other family members killed. By contrast, the Brooklyn kids are all minority strivers with at least one parent or blended families to support them. Both groups read their letters aloud, and the filmmakers quiz them on their distant friends. What is America like? “It is like heaven,” says one girl. “They have their own parents.” These exchanges are pitiful, true, and entirely unsurprising. With its ceaselessly terrible, treacly score, Brownstones is like a late-night infomercial from CARE, or Babies plus 12 years; it tells us absolutely nothing new about the world and its misery. The American pedagogic insistence on self-esteem and positive thinking seems particularly trite when compared to the Africans’ weary pragmatism. “If you do not know how to write,” says one, “you are nothing.” (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 3:45 p.m. Mon., May 31.)

6:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

The Dry Land

More illustrative than dramatic, The Dry Land addresses the Iraq War entirely through PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Yet the term is somehow unknown in this small Texas town, where cell phones don’t exist and the only job for a recently demobbed G.I. (Ryan O’Nan) is at his father-in-law’s slaughterhouse. (Cattle guns and blood—bad idea.) James is, like the film’s other characters, treated so respectfully as to be typical and colorless. He’s just a polite, quiet guy with a loyal dog, loving wife (executive producer America Ferrera, of Ugly Betty), sick mom (Melissa Leo), and best buddy (Jason Ritter). Military service hasn’t turned James into a tattooed psychopath, but neither has writer-director Ryan Piers Williams given him any personality. Things are somewhat enlivened after his PTSD kicks in, and James meets up with another survivor of the ambush that killed two in their platoon. Raymond (the surprisingly effective Wilmer Valderrama from That ’70s Show) can at least make James laugh and smile, though their trip to see a wounded comrade ends in tears. Why did James enlist? Why can’t he remember the fatal Humvee attack? “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, remaining equally mute even after the addition of booze, pills, handguns, and hookers to the plot. After The Hurt Locker and The Messenger, we’ve come to expect a bit more access to the male military mindset. The Dry Land is fair to all parties, but not so forthcoming. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 1:30 p.m. Mon., May 31.)

6:30 p.m., Egyptian


Based on real events near the end of the Cold War, Christian Carion’s well-made but routine French spy movie is set mostly in Russia. (Though there are a few D.C. scenes with Fred Ward playing Ronald Reagan; and CIA agent Willem Dafoe shows up late to deliver a nice long speech.) Working in Moscow, married with two kids, French engineer Pierre does what he thinks will be a small favor to his boss by accepting some papers from Sergei, who turns out to be a KGB colonel with Western sympathies. (The two are played, respectively, by Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica, both film directors in their own right.) Sergei has secrets to spill, including the KGB’s shocking infiltration of French and American spy agencies. Soon Pierre is pulled into the familiar espionage terrain of purloined dossiers, microfilm drops, paranoia, and hidden microphones. Until, of course, Pierre’s family is threatened. But Farewell (Sergei’s code name) is most interesting for treating male friendship and family seriously. Sergei’s is put at risk by a workplace affair (cue the delightfully vixenish Dina Korzun), while Pierre’s wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) seems to have far more sense than he. “I married an engineer,” she hisses at him, “not James Bond!” Though in truth, a little more James Bond would’ve helped Farewell. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Everett Performing Arts Center, 3 p.m. Mon., May 31, and Uptown, 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 12.)

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Beyond Ipanema

In Beyond Ipanema, we hear a lot about how Brazilian music has influenced popular music and culture over the last 60 years, we see many of the stars, and we hear tales of the country’s influence from a handful of American pop artists. What we don’t hear much of, if any, is the music this documentary attempts to examine. Apparently the film’s producers were unable—you’d hate to think unwilling—to spring for the rights, and the result is as frustrating as an art museum full of bad imitations. (The film’s soundtrack mostly comprises new compositions, not originals.) We hear a lot about the 1959 film Black Orpheus and how it helped Brazilian music “get its foot in the door.” But like the great bossa novas and sambas discussed by David Byrne, Bud Shank, and others, we’re unable to hear the examples being discussed. (NR) CHRIS KORNELIS (Also: 1 p.m. Mon., May 31 and Kirkland Performance Center, 5 p.m. Fri., June 4.)

Sunday, May 30

1:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould got the medium wrong, but eventually got the message right. The ground bass running throughout the career of this pianist/philosopher, one of the 20th century’s major musical figures, was the transforming effect of technology on our relationship to art. As Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont’s documentary portrait of Gould mentions, he foretold—in the early ’60s, just as he retired from concertizing at the height of his fame—that the next great cultural shift would be DIY. Gould (1932–1982) could not know that blogging would make everyone an author and YouTube everyone a director. But he did know technology would be the key to unlocking the creativity of the consumer—farewell, artist as autocrat. He predicted that listeners would be able to assemble their own favorite performances of classical music: If you prefer your Beethoven’s Seventh with Szell’s introduction and Bernstein’s allegro, just splice away! If I could similarly make my own version of this film, I’d separate out the stuff about Gould’s love life, which sits uneasily among discussions of his aesthetics. For the famously reclusive Gould, the strength of technology was that it allowed him to communicate with a large audience while making as little face-to-face contact as possible—to share his music, but not himself. Gould’s public and private worlds are both fascinating subjects, but he constructed his life to keep them separate. Hozer and Raymont don’t—and arguably shouldn’t try to—mesh them gracefully. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT (Also: 6:15 p.m. Mon., May 31.)

4:15 p.m., Harvard Exit


A fascinating documentary about self-taught artist Mark Hogancamp, Marwencol occupies only the “after” side of his artistic breakthrough. Before, he and others briefly describe, he was in the Navy, married, and a raging drunk. Then a 2000 bar fight left him brain-damaged and unable to walk or speak properly. For therapy, he says, he began photographing World War II dioramas he built outside his Kingston, New York, trailer home. He regained motor skills and retreated into the Belgian fantasy village of Marwencol, where German and U.S. troops—essentially G.I. Joe dolls at one-sixth scale—live in peaceful Brigadoon with their Barbie companions. Hogancamp’s photos went into shoeboxes until his work was discovered—about which time director Jeff Malmberg began following him. The film then leads up to his first gallery show in Manhattan, four years ago. Hogancamp claims the beating cured him of his desire for drink, yet he still seems sad and lonely, all by himself with his dolls. (He tows them in a toy Jeep alongside the road to add muddy realism to his tableaux.) Marwencol is entirely sympathetic to its subject, but instead of probing more deeply into what Hogancamp was before (a hobbyist, carpenter, and showroom designer, in fact), the movie insists on the transformative power of art. (That, and one of Hogancamp’s small personal quirks.) But no one is born twice. As with the photos, you’re left wondering what’s outside the frame. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 6:15 p.m. Mon., May 31.)

6:45 p.m., Pacific Place


Good news: Someone has finally made a comedy about Croatia’s struggle for independence! Bad news: The average American filmgoer has absolutely no idea about anything that happened in that breakaway Balkan nation during the summer of 1995. And this film isn’t going to provide an easy history lesson. Donkey presents an intentionally awkward family journey from city (Zagreb) to country. Traveling to his ancestral village, Boro and his wife, Jasna, spend much of the movie quarreling or in silent standoffs. Yet their trip, with young son in the car, offers some amazing cinematography—revealing stunning landscapes we ought to know better (like the country itself). Meanwhile, Boro is stubborn as an ass—a joke that Donkey repeats about 1,000 times. This leaves viewers to side with long-suffering Jasna, a task made easier by actress Nataša Janjic, who’s really, really hot. Visit Croatia! It has all kinds of scenery to offer. (NR) A.J. TIGNER (Also: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 5.)

6:45 p.m., Harvard Exit


Gerrymandering is a political process more commonly known as redistricting, in which congressional and legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts tracked by the U.S. Census. This process is handled by state legislators and loathed by voters, who feel their elected officials often mess with district boundaries in order to maintain power, increase power, or put someone from a rival party out of power. While politicians have abused this process since the Constitution’s ink was still wet, Tom DeLay really abused it in 2003 when he instructed his fellow Republicans in the Texas statehouse to redraw district lines in a non-census year. In California, voters passed Proposition 11, which put the power of redistricting in the hands of a group of bipartisan commissioners. This documentary takes 80 minutes to explain what, summarized above, could’ve been conveyed in half that time. Granted, it’s a worthwhile topic for a short, no-frills documentary, but Gerrymandering punishes your policy interest with ADD editing and amateurish graphics. (NR) MIKE SEELY (Also: 11 a.m. Mon., May 31.)

7 p.m., Egyptian

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls

Resistance is futile. Don’t even try not falling for these adorable twin lesbian political-activist farmer/folksinger/comedians from New Zealand. “On paper, they should not work,” says one talking head in this doc about Jools and Lynda Topp, who sing like the Everly Brothers, look like kd lang (in plaid flannel), crusade like Joan Baez, and bring to life onstage a flock of campily satirical, Little Britain–style characters—when they’re not working the family farm they were raised on. Some of those characters, like drag-king everyguys Ken & Ken or socialites Dilly and Prue Ramsbottom, sometimes take over, appearing at county fairs and charity teas and fooling people who might not know the Topps’ shtick. If NZ’s a reasonably gay-friendly country now, it was a hard-won battle; part of the victory is due to the Topps, on the ramparts for decades, and their “healthy, rural, cheerful cowgirl image.” A gay who can wrangle sheep is a gay every Kiwi can relate to, and their out-and-proud act has filled meeting halls in the tiniest towns. A few questions Leanne Pooley’s film doesn’t answer: How/why did they leap from farming to performing in the first place? What’s it like being in a relationship (both Topps are partnered) with two sisters so twin-close? And if the country’s once-thundering intolerance was transformed in a few short years into “who cares?” acceptance, then what the fuck is America’s problem? (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT (Also: 11 a.m. Mon., May 31.)

7:15 p.m., SIFF Cinema

Turn It Loose

This documentary and the 2007 international break-dancing competition it follows are both sponsored by Red Bull, meaning flashy camerawork that celebrates this young male market…er, sorry, I mean artistic subculture. Slo-mo, freeze frames, and 360-pans capture the dancers, who face off in brackets inside a very photogenic old Soweto power station. (In case you miss it, the Red Bull logo is prominent on the dance floor for overhead shots.) Their music features hip-hop staples like “Apache” and countless other samples—it’s the global soundtrack for youth, Turn It Loose suggests, since the primary competitors profiled are from Senegal, France, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. None are white, and most seem to come from poorer backgrounds. Dancing, like boxing, is a means up and out of humble circumstances. In Dakar, we watch a dance team hooking up electricity to power their boom boxes. In Lyon, the son of Algerian immigrants stops to pray toward Mecca between practice sessions. In Northern California, a Mexican immigrant teen delivers pizza to help pay for his ticket to Soweto. (There, he grouses of his competitors, “They think we all have it easy” in the U.S.) All of them dance thrillingly, even if their stories are told according to template. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 9:20 p.m. Tues., June 8, and Kirkland Performance Center, 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 11.)

9 p.m., Pacific Place


Much about this Bulgarian crime movie is hard to follow, beginning with the freshwater crustaceans. They’re symbolic, somehow, of best buddies Doka and Bonza, minimally employed bottom-feeders in their post-communist country. But they themselves also fish for crawdads, and Doka is making a mechanical crayfish for Bonza’s upcoming wedding reception. Is the crayfish some kind of national emblem, a figure out of folklore, a delicacy, or an object of disgust? We never learn. Nor is it clear which relatives and Greek mobsters are steering Doka and Bonza into some kind of a scheme that involves a red van, the privatization of an old arms factory, and a trip to swim in the Danube. Mainly Doka and Bonza just carp about their lives, including one lovely, long scene set on a moving train. “I feel like a dinosaur, that nobody needs me,” Doka laments. Their grandfathers fought in World War II. Their fathers were part of the Cold War. Now these two are just clueless errand boys, like the Bulgarian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just as confused about their place in the world as we are. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Uptown, 9:30 p.m. Wed., June 2.)

9:30 p.m., Uptown

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Previously exposing the inequities of the U.S. justice system and the horrors of Darfur, nonfiction vets Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg turn their clear-eyed attention to celebrity senescence—specifically, to the masochistic refusal to retire of the comedian now best known, in the words of her former manager, “as a plastic-surgery freak.” Filmed as Rivers, self-deprecatingly honest about her desperation to keep busy, was turning 75, A Piece of Work shows the Celebrity Apprentice ’09 winner getting heckled at a gig in Wisconsin (prompting a furious retort) and enduring endless humiliation during a Comedy Central roast (karmic retribution?)—grateful that her monthly planner remains full. (NR) MELISSA ANDERSON

Monday, May 31

11 a.m., Neptune

Rouge Ciel

Quick, name an outsider artist. You say Henry Darger, and this engrossing French documentary would agree with you. However, it does get bogged down in definitions. French art critics prefer the ’40s term “Art Brut,” as championed by Jean Dubuffet. Then there’s the trickier matter—teased out by many talking heads—of differentiating Art Brut from surrealism, dada, folk art, and so forth. Art Brut, says one critic, is created by “the excluded. They find in this rejection wild freedom.” And certainly Darger, with his wild mythology of little girls fighting an epic war, was an outcast. (Other examples surveyed here include Los Angeles’ famous Watts Towers by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.) There is a certain French tendency here to romanticize mental illness—or brain disorders, or whatever causes graphomania and similar compulsions. One Czech artist, after a mental breakdown, says, “My head was like a hive, a radar.” And he doesn’t sound happy about it, either. Rouge Ciel doesn’t ask any doctors about these tormented artists, and doesn’t include any intellectuals who aren’t on board with the movement. And apart from the Art Brut Museum that Dubuffet established in Lausanne, how many collectors are there for such work? Those questions aren’t answered. Watching the film is something like attending a museum presentation. Fortunately, director Bruno Decharme breaks up the lecture with some extremely witty mini-histories (animated by Vincent Chazal) that wouldn’t seem out of place on Monty Python. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Harvard Exit, 7 p.m. Tues., June 8.)

1:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

An expansive take on the world in miniature, Jessica Oreck’s documentary debut pursues all angles on a novel subject—the Japanese obsession with insects—until it assumes a worldview. That such an approach could work for just about any aspect of existence—academia subsists on such blinkered, max-effort specialization—doesn’t make its conviction of purpose any less admirable, or in the case of Beetle Queen, anything short of bewitching. Equal parts playful and ponderous, the film looks upon humanity through a bug’s life (and vice versa). Oreck eschews linearity for episodic bemusement, flying off, moth-like, in seemingly wayward directions but always landing with intention. She shows a little boy swooning over a $57 beetle queen, a Ferrari-driving hornet hunter, itinerant firefly-spotters, bonsai trimmers, and Zen gardeners, and many, many bugs in extreme close-up, all set to a soundtrack of crickets and cicadas. Bug-love might be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, but the drive to collect is not—here, men hunt and hoard insects as they would baseball cards or comics. It’s a complicated human impulse that can’t be explained by nationalism or distilled into haiku. But there’s enough wisdom in this appropriately compact film to suggest avenues of further, though likely not as wondrous, inquiry. (NR) ERIC HYNES (Also: Harvard Exit, 9:15 p.m. Wed., June 2.)

6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Bilal’s Stand

Unpolished, low-budget, and directly autobiographical, this uplifting little indie wins you over by the force of its director’s determination. Bilal Mahdi (Julian Gant) is the 18-year-old stand-in for writer/director Sultan Sharrief (now 25). His African-American family took Islamic names back during the Black Power ’70s; now he prays a little, tries to read the Koran, but also looks to Nietzsche for guidance. A high-school senior, Bilal helps run their family’s Detroit taxi stand, splitting his duties with his mother and various cousins. There is no father, and no prospect of paying for college. But then Bilal learns of a partial scholarship available through a culinary program that requires him to learn ice carving—those frozen swans and angels you find at the buffets of all-white golf clubs. Here comes the gruff white ice-carving instructor! Here comes the uptight white Type-A girl who thinks Bilal can’t hack it! And soon Bilal’s own mother is reproaching his uppity-ness, too! (“You think you’re better than me?”) Yes, Bilal’s Stand does tread on Tyler Perry territory, but from a much younger, hip-hop perspective. Bilal interrupts his own story with a glossary of neighborhood types (“puffers,” “splitters,” etc.) and includes some Keith Haring–style animation, too. University of Michigan graduate Sharrief is expected to attend SIFF, where he’ll explain how high-schoolers worked on his crew. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 4 p.m. Wed., June 2.)

6:30 p.m., Egyptian


This satisfying little crime movie from Iceland involves most of the same parties as Jar City (SIFF ’08), whose director, Baltasar Kormákur, now steps to the other side of the camera to play an alcoholic ex-con drawn back into booze-smuggling. Fresh out of AA, Kristófer needs cash to rent a new apartment for his two sons and wife. And though she disapproves, he signs on to make another smuggling run to Rotterdam, where he’ll have to hide the hooch somewhere in the giant container ship. The priggish captain is watching him closely; then strange calls come from back home, where his best pal may be putting the moves on his wife. If the characters and criminal elements aren’t particularly novel here, the movie puts them together with brisk efficiency. Director Oskar Jonasson gives you just enough information in a scene, then pushes to the next. There are pauses both bloody and comic, and a Jackson Pollock painting figures in the plot, but the movie never gets sidetracked for an instant. Like Kristófer’s 12-day voyage, like his family’s looming eviction deadline, like the ship steaming relentlessly ahead, Reykjavík-Rotterdam always maintains its forward momentum. The U.S. remake will star Mark Walhberg, under Kormákur’s direction, but see this one first. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Pacific Place, 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 3, and Kirkland Performance Center, 7 p.m. Mon., June 7.)

9 p.m., Pacific Place

Some Days Are Better Than Others

Someone’s been watching too many Miranda July movies. Made in Portland by Matt McCormick, this slow-moving tale of tangentially related slackers achieves a nice mood, but little drama. We meet glum Eli (singer James Mercer of the Shins) doing temp work and borrowing the car of his octogenarian grandfather-in-law, a likable codger who makes films about soap bubbles. Over there is Katrina (Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney), artsy and equally depressed, working at an animal shelter when she’s not auditioning for MTV’s The Real World. Then there’s a thrift-store worker distressed to find the ashes of a dead child in a donated urn—but who cares about her, when the actress isn’t in a band? McCormick frames their stories through “this depression” (as Eli calls it); no one has any money, and the camera tracks past boarded-up houses and empty parking lots. Some Days treats the hustlers of the new economy with contempt, preferring the soulful wallowing of its two protagonists. Art is a refuge for them, maybe—or is it a cop-out? (When motivated, Eli does a little karaoke.) McCormack and his cinematographer, Greg Schmitt, capture some suitably evocative images, like the lonely undersides of bridges along the Willamette. Pity nothing happens there. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: 4 p.m. Tues., June 1.)

Tuesday, June 1

4 p.m., Egyptian

Bran Nue Dae

Rabbit-Proof Fence meets High School Musical. In this film version of a 1990 Australian stage musical—the first, it’s claimed, about Aboriginal life—teenage Willie road-trips picaresquely from seminary school in Perth across the Outback to his home in Broome, 2,415 miles up the Indian Ocean coast. (As Willie, Rocky McKenzie could hit it huge in America; he’s got exactly the sort of Lautner/Bieber puffy baby-face look that’s trendy for teen idols.) He’s disappointing his devout mother, who wants him to become a priest, but he’s rescuing his kind-of-girlfriend from a bad-boy bar-band singer and escaping creepy Father Benedictus. (Hey, is that Geoffrey Rush? It is!) The musical’s dark backdrop is Australia’s brutal treatment of Aborigines, but bouncy songs burst out everywhere anyway. (A disco/funk cover of “Stand by Your Man” is the movie’s least loopy number.) The third cinematic ingredient here is a bit of the storytelling incoherence of, say, Magical Mystery Tour; the movie plunges into action with director Rachel Perkins seeming to assume we already know who all the characters are. (Down Under, they probably do.) In fact, this Bollywood-style unself-consciousness is Bran Nue Dae‘s hallmark. This isn’t knowing camp; the cast plays the material with an earnest, insouciant, and winning indifference to any unintentional laughs it might get. It’s as colorful, sugary, and excessive as a 10-pound bag of Skittles. And for me, as irresistible. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT (Also: Kirkland Performance Center, 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 5, and Uptown, 7 p.m. Wed., June 9.)

5 p.m., Everett Performing Arts Center

Garbo: The Spy

This Spanish documentary focuses on the clandestine battles of World War II—particularly the brilliant diversion the Allies constructed opposite Calais to mislead the Germans about their intended invasion point, Normandy. Once a chicken farmer, Spanish double-agent Juan Pujol aided the Allied effort by bombarding the Nazis with fake letters and documents. (“Garbo” was his code name.) His assistance in the Calais deception was so helpful that on him was bestowed the honorific of the film’s full Spanish subtitle: “The Man Who Saved the World.” Although the documentary dismisses this as hyperbole, Garbo makes a compelling argument that Pujol might’ve shaved an entire year off the European theater of war, perhaps preventing Germany’s V-2 rockets from gaining nuclear capability. There are more than a few funny, impressive anecdotes about Pujol’s colorful career, but little in the way of archival footage. (No surprise that a spy wouldn’t want to be filmed.) All the amassed details had me wondering if a better title for the doc wouldn’t be Here’s Some Cool Trivia About World War II Espionage. What little source material director Edmon Roch could find about the guy is just repeated over and over. (NR) A.J. TIGNER (Also: Pacific Place, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 3; and 11 a.m. Sat., June 5.)

7 p.m., Neptune

Dear Lemon Lima,

Vanessa (Savanah Wiltfong) is a bright, conscientious 13-year-old, a vegetarian who spends much of her time daydreaming in a kiddie pool. Her boyfriend, Philip, is a snobby tool who constantly reminds her of his rich family, while Vanessa lives with her single mom, a writer of self-help books who could use some help herself. When Philip dumps her, Vanessa transfers to his ultra-elite private school to win him back. But there she bonds with fellow misfits and is quickly labeled FUBAR. (“I’m not sure what FUBAR means,” she writes in her diary, “but I think it has something to do with terrible suffering.”) Set in Alaska (but shot in Seattle), Lemon Lima smartly addresses the culture clash between Nichols Academy’s preppie conformity and the outcasts of Vanessa’s crowd. Her absentee father is half Yup’ik Eskimo, initially a source of embarrassment at school. And yet she blossoms, leading her FUBAR team in a Native-themed snowstorm-survival competition. Plainly intended for teen uplift, Lemon Lima has more than a few touching, heartstopping moments, but is most refreshing for what it lacks: Here’s a movie without horny high-schoolers trying to get laid or throwing drunken parties while their parents are away. FUBARs or no, these kids are genuinely likable. (NR) ERIN K. THOMPSON (Also: 4:30 p.m. Wed., June 2.)

9:15 p.m., Harvard Exit


The countless missing women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have been the subject of documentaries, TV specials, and New York Times articles. Backyard is set in 1996, before such coverage north of the border. It’s half-narrated by a radio journalist observing a female cop run straight into the corrupt male establishment that has no interest in solving the crimes. The numbers are uncertain—600 dead, 800, or have some crossed the border alive or returned to their home villages? All that matters in Juárez is a fresh supply of cheap female workers for the foreign-owned maquiladoras. Labor is a commodity, and women are the cheapest commodity. (A visiting trade delegation breaks down the costs of competing with China, Malaysia, and Thailand.) A close cousin to Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic, Carlos Carrera’s film is less accomplished, but it ambitiously assigns blame to every corner of the system. Maybe there’s a secret sex-and-snuff club (run by Jimmy Smits); maybe prostitutes are being murdered by an Arab-American serial killer (dubbed “the Sultan”); or maybe women are just so devalued that domestic violence is ignored by the cops. Or maybe—as Backyard disturbingly suggests—all these things are true. Even the sweet peasant boyfriend of one worker can be drawn into this culture of violent misogyny. Juárez is like a poisoned well for Carrera (The Crime of Father Amaro), so murky you can’t see the bottom. If there is one. (NR) BRIAN MILLER (Also: Pacific Place, 9:30 p.m. Wed., June 9.)

Rouge Ciel

Rouge Ciel