Your M-SPIFF 12-Pack

A dozen discerning film fest picks

Conventioneers

OAK STREET CINEMA, FRIDAY AT 7:15 P.M.

Inspired by Haskell Wexler's epochal Medium Cool, this Amerindie docudrama sets the fictional affair of a red-state man and a blue-state woman against the real backdrop of protestors and panderers in the run-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention. Seven years after they were friends at Dartmouth, Texas delegate David (Matthew Mabe) and New York protestor Lea (Woodwyn Koons) meet for lunch and begin trading political barbs; a few drinks later, they're in bed together. The film asks: At what cost do we forgo personal needs for political causes (and vice versa)? Speaking of which: For the heinous crime of creating a historical record, director Mora Stephens and crew were placed in detention by the NYPD. But the movie's indelible climax, in particular, shows that their effort was worth it.

John Behling

 

Man Push Cart

RIVERVIEW THEATER, FRIDAY AT 7:30 P.M.; AND BLOCK E 15, SUNDAY AT 7:00 P.M.

This subtly resonant character portrait from Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani applies a rapt focus to the daily routine of its protagonist (Ahmad Razvi), a former rock star from Lahore who now works a coffee-and-pastry pushcart in New York City. Set largely between sunset and dawn, the movie illuminates the murky beauty—and hardscrabble economics—of the city's all-night shadowland. And while it's not overtly political, Man Push Cart's matter-of-fact look at the daily trials of assimilation for a young Muslim man reads clearly in terms of post-9/11 America. By the end, the repeated images of man pushing cart have merged into an infinite loop, a visually eloquent summation of the stoic hero's existential plight.

Dennis Lim

 

John & Jane Toll-Free

BLOCK E 15, SATURDAY AT 5:15 P.M.

Cheerily selling "America" to Americans by phone from Mumbai, the Indian call-center workers in this stunning documentary peek behind globalization's veil appear just as eager to buy in. Albeit mandatory, the shadow corporation's U.S.-culture seminar ("the pursuit of happiness") registers for the attendees as an American-style opportunity. Off-duty (that is, during the day), the service reps get stoned, go shopping, swap shit-talk about the unseen boss, eat at McDonald's, sing along with Elvis, and dream of making billions. Shot like fiction from tripods in 35mm, director Ashim Ahluwalia's stylized anti-vérité chills to the bone. The mood is wired but numb, the reps soothed by an almost religious belief that those phone lines lead to freedom. HBO, believe it or not, has bought the movie and will air it next year.

Rob Nelson

 

The Forest for the Trees

OAK STREET CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 5:00 P.M.

Simple, patient, and at times uncomfortably intimate, this highly acclaimed student film from German director Maren Ade follows Melanie (Eva Löbau), a young and lonely schoolteacher whose students are out of control. Melanie tries to make friends with her stylish neighbor (Daniela Holz), but her social skills lack subtlety, and she eventually starts following the poor woman around, snooping and interfering to the point of stalking. Löbau delivers a haunting performance: Her character is a quivering bundle of nerves, false bravado, and poor instincts, a woman we can't help but empathize with. Winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance, The Forest for the Trees articulates the very human condition of being left out and not knowing how to find a way in.

Caroline Palmer

 

Iron Island

OAK STREET CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 7:00 P.M.; AND THE BELL, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26 AT 5:00 P.M.

In this abstract rhetorical movie from Iran, a group of Iranian Arabs led by the stern Captain Nemat (Alis Nassirian) find their already tenuous existence threatened when the oil tanker on which they live begins to sink into the Persian Gulf. Tied to the mainland by cell phones and memories, the unmoored refugees scramble for a new home, all the while insisting, "Where we are now is part of the world. We're in the world." Nemat rules his floating diaspora with an iron fist, subjecting a lovelorn runaway to repeated near-drowning in a scene whose unvarnished aesthetics only make it more harrowing. Director Mohammad Rasoulof uses the ship's sun-bleached exterior as the setting for bare-stage allegory; if his vehicle is sometimes rusty and slow to turn, it carries its hefty cargo securely to the end.

Sam Adams

 

4

THE BELL, MONDAY AT 7:00 P.M.; AND OAK STREET CINEMA, FRIDAY, APRIL 28 AT 7:15 P.M.

Artfully sordid and calculatedly obscure, this Russian bacchanalia from first-time director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is provocative enough to have incensed the authorities in its nation of origin. But it isn't likely to go down any easier with most American audiences, who aren't exactly used to seeing Mother Russia as one big, drunken orgy, a mud bath heaving with surreally comic grotesqueries. (Get ready to watch an old grandmother strip bare in preparation for kinky sex.) If Khrzhanovsky sometimes suggests the illegitimate offspring of Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Svankmajer, 4 is nothing like an art-film clone. Hard to like, but impossible not to admire, the movie overflows with ideas about science, nature, and social breakdown. The director is on to something—and he means to rub our noses in it.

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