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CINEMA: Our Daily Film Fest Picks

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JULIA (2008, directed by Erick Zonca, 140 minutes, France)

In his first English language film, Frenchman Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels) follows another desperate character to the brink. Here, Tilda Swinton is Julia, a manic shit-storm whose life is spiraling out of control due to her alcoholism and unnamed demons that are spurring her towards self-destruction.  She meets a mentally ill woman named Elena at AA and she convinces Julia to help her kidnap Elena’s son from his wealthy industrialist grandfather.  If the joy of crime films is the vicarious thrill of watching people successfully flout the law, following the unreliable and hapless Julia as she plots a kidnapping is like watching someone cover the floor with banana peels and then commence a waltz.  Swinton is magnetic as ever, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her play such a intellectually dense character before.  Not that Julia doesn’t carry some innate feral intelligence, yet it appears that her alcoholism has left her incapable of making reasoned decisions; she’s like a thirteen year old who has been suddenly handed the steering wheel.  Seeing a child in her care makes for a nerve-wracking experience and if director Zonca stretches her journey for a half-hour longer than he should have, Julia is still stuffed with suspenseful action and unforgettable characters.–DAN BUSKIRK

Saturday, April 5, 9:30, Ritz 5

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av_9.jpgAMERICAN VIOLET (2008, directed by Tim Disney, 120 minutes, U.S.)

I’ll admit to feeling a sense of relief when the Bush/Cheney posters spotted in this film’s opening signaled not a grim current reality but instead placed American Violet as a period piece, set in the faraway year of 2000.  Based on a true story of political malfeasance, American Violet follows the African American citizens of Melody Texas, which has a policy of rounding up the citizens of The Projects and pressuring them to accept harsh plea bargains on unwarranted charges.   The story, directed with unusual verve by Tim Disney (Walt’s grandnephew), presents its tale in a manner similar to Law And Order, illustrating a current political hot-button topic with a charged personal story.  Centered around working mom Dee (Nicole Behaire in an emotional debut)
and her ACLU hired local lawyer (played by the dependable Will Patton) American Violet succeeds in putting a face to the widespread and obscure issue of unfairly leveraged plea bargains.   It is a honorable undertaking, if not always an cinematic one.   P.S. Alfre Woodard has cancelled her appearance to collect The Fade To Black Quest Award, though the film’s lead Nicole Behaire will be in town to accept it on her behalf.–DAN BUSKIRK

Saturday April 4, 6:30, The Prince
Sunday April 5, 2:30, The Prince

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WHITE NIGHT WEDDING (2008, directed by Baltasar Kormakur, 94 minutes, Iceland)

Watching the first fifteen minutes of this Icelandic festival entry I thought I’d come across your typical Icelandic popular comedy; there is a phone that goes off in a wedding ceremony, a fat man falling out of a row boat and a mother-in-law who was a ball-buster on wheels.  As the story continued on it grew darker and I remembered that White Night Wedding is actually an adaptation of Chekhov’s play Ivanov.  Set against the stark beauty of the island of Flatey during the endless light of the Northern summer, director Baltasar Kormakur’s production finds a contemporary setting to place the conflicted characters of Chekhov’s story.  The story is packed with the types of quirky characters you’d expect in a typical indie comedy: a completely hairless priest, a golf course designing yokel and our lead, a hapless philosophy professor torn between his young fiancee and the memories of his doomed ex-wife.  The film occasionally steers into generic comedy set-ups, still its witty script is able to draw laughs while remaining true to the conflicted emotions and deep sadness of his source material.  While White Night Wedding ultimately feels like a somewhat minor triumph, it still carries some fleeting hallucinogenic moments of surprising power.–DAN BUSKIRK

Saturday, April 4, 2:30, Ritz East 1

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THE BURNING PLAIN (2008, directed by Guillermo Arriaga, 111 minutes, U.S.)

Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga contributed screenplays for the hit films from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros, Babel).  Recently Arriaga has severed that relationship and entered into directing himself.  His debut The Burning Plain follows the same multi-thread framework as his work for Iñárritu, establishing separate stories that appear to be unconnected, then weaving the threads together at the story’s end.  Like Philadelphia’s M. Night Shyamalan, Arriaga has used his pet storytelling device too many times in a row now; it’s hard to keep the element of “surprise” in your work when every story climaxes with the same sort of “surprise”.  If Burning Plain hems too close to the Arriga formula, this screenplay makes for his most assured work yet, combining a crop duster’s daughter, Charlize Theron as a sexually compulsive restaurant worker and two teens discovering their parent’s elicit affair; what could their connection be?  Arriaga’s direction is confident as well, giving us yet another beautiful depiction of life among the Southern U.S./Mexican border.  The Burning Plain will probably be among the best-reviewed films of the year; still, Arriga should be beating his brains trying to figure out if he knows another way to tell a story.–DAN BUSKIRK

Saturday April 4, 2:30, Ritz 5

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