Boston's Alternative Source! image!
     
Feedback

Can we count on them?
They’re off and screening in the 17th annual Boston Film Festival



Short cuts

As always, this year’s Boston Film Festival shorts (all of which screen at the Copley Place) have nothing in common except the fact that they have nothing in common. Some are great, some are middling. Some, in just a few minutes, relate profound and provocative stories with genuine characters, places, and moods. Others don’t. As Forrest Gump was wont to say, " You never know what yer gonna git. "

Package #1 (Saturday at noon and 2 and 4 p.m. and Sunday at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m.) has some fine efforts by minority filmmakers. Pete Chatmon’s black-and-white " 3D " is an intelligent if somewhat overwrought depiction of the ways the African-American regulars at Dee’s Delicious Diner try to take control of their lives. Willie Earl Dawkins’s " Across the River, " also in black and white, has a warm tint that belies its subject. The scene is Watts, 1965: when police mistakenly ring her doorbell, a woman who’s lost her grandson to the riots looks for answers but finds it difficult to accept the ones she gets. Similar subject matter (grandparents, police, sudden death) turns up in Australian Serhat Caradee’s " Bound, " whose nonlinear story line is both its most promising device and its greatest failing. In Tung Wang Wu’s jarring " And Now Happiness . . .  " this filmmaker from Taiwan works through his feelings for his (presumably deceased) mother via unsettling roleplaying: he dresses up as her, à la Norman Bates, and allows strangers to abuse him in order to " perceive my hatred from her point of view. "

Lianne Klapper McNally’s " Artists & Orphans: A True Drama, " the standout in Package #2 (Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m.), is an affecting documentary about a New York theater troupe that betters the lives of hundreds of orphans from Tbilisi, Georgia. Cynthia Wells’s " The Shadow of Doubt " is a dreary psychedelic pastiche about a Paris cabaret singer that recalls Ralph Bakshi. With " Drink, " on the other hand, Pat Smith has created a monster: when a boy drinks from a vial, he becomes a spasmodic Russian nesting doll as all manner of characters rise from him in sequence, leaving the deflated husk of their hosts at their feet. It’s a brilliant, stylized animation. " Wait ’til Your Father Gets Home " is a tar-black comedy from Australian Martin Wilson that explores what happens when a son tries to resuscitate his beloved dead father with a car battery, Jesus, and hope; a touchy-feely dénouement detracts from its wicked charm.

In Package #3 (Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. and Tuesday at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m.), we have Judy Dennis’s " Patriotic, " a humdrum meditation on the meaning of freedom and joie de vivre. Judy Chaikin’s " Cotillion ’65 " is a funny paean to a kid’s unrequited love for his dance teacher. Chris Mancini’s " Hitclown " is also a hoot — a stylish, wordless account of what happens when mixed-up bags lead a hit man and a clown to switch careers. In " Offside, " Leanna Creel uses a gray-blue and brown palette to tell the true story of a Christmas day in 1914 when British and German soldiers emerged from Flanders’ trenches . . . to play soccer.

Package #4 (Sunday at noon and 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m.) has the festival’s best short. Based on a Tobias Wolff short story, David Von Anchen’s " Bullet in the Brain " tells of a sadistic creative writing teacher who’s shot during a bank hold-up. In the time it takes the projectile to pierce his cerebral cortex, he’s overcome by a formative childhood memory — not of his family or his first love but of a single grammatically incorrect quip. Bonus points for George Plimpton’s narration. In " Gasline, " Dave Silver tries for profundity, but the understated short’s incendiary conclusion is incongruous. Brendan Donovan’s " Here " stars Lee Majors (looking these days like a $600 man) as an aging hired gun who has second thoughts about his profession. Jonathan Scarfe & Suki Kaiser’s " Speak " is a stark and troubling account of sexual abuse and its aftermath.

In Package #5 (Saturday at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. and Tuesday at noon and 2 and 4:30 p.m.), Mimi Zora’s " Goulash " offers a fly-on-the-wall look at an Eastern European immigrant family. It’s a glib take on intergenerational and intercultural familial conflict until the closing credits, when the fourth wall is delightfully broken and the crew joins the cast for a lively meal. Brian To’s " Audit " is a sly but strained dramatization of an IRS grilling that uncovers more than financial improprieties. Finally, there are world premieres from Massachusetts filmmakers Jeremy Martin and Damon Maulucci. The former’s " Something or Nothing " begins with an interesting premise (man returns, decades after the fact, to confront his childhood bully). But then things get weird, and what it asks the viewer to believe isn’t helped by stilted performances. The latter’s " Bad Light " benefits from fine acting in its depiction of a troubled yet trying adolescent but suffers from a too-abrupt conclusion. Being a short shouldn’t mean getting short-changed.

— Mike Miliard

Another year, another Boston Film Festival. Now in its 17th year, the festival has settled into a comfortable formula: some 40 features spread over 10 days (September 7 through 16 this time), plus five programs of shorts. It’s not Cannes or Venice or Berlin, or even New York or Toronto; there’s no blue-ribbon panel of directors and stars to bestow an award for best film (the Golden Cod?). Still, last year’s offerings did include Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauty Institute, Rod Lurie’s The Contender, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Joseph Travolta’s Enemies of Laughter, Mark Jonathan Harris’s Holocaust documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, Dominik Moll’s With a Friend like Harry . . . (it played then as Harry, He’s Here To Help), Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Doris Dörrie’s Enlightenment Guaranteed, and Ken Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (which got Laura Linney an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). This year’s Film Excellence Award recipients are Steve Martin, who’ll be honored Monday night, before the screening of Novocaine, and Sissy Spacek, who’ll be here Tuesday evening for her In the Bedroom. Here’s the line-up for week #1:

Jeffrey Gantz Arts Editor

FRIDAY 7

****** A Phoenix Pick ******

HAIKU TUNNEL

Monologuist Josh Kornbluth directed (with his brother, Jacob) and stars in this comedy about the misadventures of a neurotic office temp in San Francisco. Josh does so well as secretary to a demanding tax lawyer that he’s offered a permanent position. ( " Would you like to go perm for Bob, Josh? " his supervisor purrs obscenely.) Having accepted this upgrade, he starts to feel a compulsion to arrive late and spend the day working furtively on his novel. Josh’s belated attempts to finish 17 urgent letters for his boss, despite all kinds of hindrances and distractions, form the plot of the movie. The humor of Haiku Tunnel is based on sharp observation of office styles and politics, and though some of the caricaturing is strained, parts of the film are hilarious — like Josh’s run-ins with recalcitrant technology. In the best sequence, Sarah Overman is outstanding as a woman working late at the office who comes on to Josh thinking he’s a lawyer. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:45 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and 4 p.m. Directors Josh and Jacob Kornbluth will be present at tonight’s 7:45 show.

— Chris Fujiwara

******A Phoenix Pick ******

L.I.E.

The title refers to the Long Island Expressway, which is where people like Harry Chapin, Alan Pakula, and the mother of Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) have died, and which, as a metaphor, is the only thing that doesn’t ring true in Michael Cuesta’s brilliant debut about adolescent angst in the suburban wasteland. Howie’s dad, Marty (Bruce Altman), has his share of angst too, and what with his construction firm being under federal investigation and his evenings being spent screwing his new bimbo girlfriend while wearing only a hard hat, he doesn’t have much time to supervise his boy. So Howie hangs out with bad company like Gary (Billy Kay), a low-rent thief and underage prostitute who eventually hooks him up with Big John " B.J. " Harrigan (Brian Cox, in this year’s greatest performance), Marine veteran, stand-up guy, and secret pedophile.

Lacerating and tender without being exploitative or sentimental, L.I.E. humanizes the unspeakable — its most erotic and tragic scene has Big John shaving Howie’s fuzzless face in a mirror. Cuesta gives the lie to the current ratings system, which slapped the film with an NC-17, keeping it from the eyes of those who would benefit from it most. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 9:40 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:15 and 3:30 p.m. Director Michael Cuesta and actors Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, and Billy Kay will be present at tonight’s 7 p.m. show.

— Peter Keough

LIFT

DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter are two of the area’s most polished and talented filmmakers, and from its first scene — wherein gangsta Christian (Todd Williams) and crew rob a ritzy Boston department store — their Lift demonstrates confidence and pizzazz. The store is where smart and pretty Niecy (Kerry Washington) works, and though her display ideas catch the approving eye of a supervisor, it’s her other job — lifting designer merchandise and selling it at bargain rates to her inner-city neighbors — that pays for the BMW. Though averse to the rough stuff, Niecy is drawn to Christian, for both professional and personal reasons, much to the disgust of boyfriend Angelo (Eugene Byrd), who’s trying to go straight.

Davis and Streeter get the ambiance and the action right, but the motivation is a little shaky. Niecy’s selfishness and self-destructiveness stem from a desire to please her aloof, hoity-toity mother (Lonette McKee), who was herself abused growing up. Like Jon Singleton’s equally problematic Baby Boy, in which a mother’s coddling causes the son’s bad behavior, here mom’s neglect is to blame for the daughter’s woes. Screens tonight at the Boston Common at 7:15 and 9:50 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:45 p.m. Directors DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter will be present at tonight’s 7:15 show.

— Peter Keough

ONE EYED DOG

It’s set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s really shot in Montreal and is all-too-familiar Hollywood terrain. Twenty years ago, five neighborhood kids pledged eternal loyalty and confirmed it with stolen Claddagh rings. Now they’re screw-ups and losers, but they still wear the rings as they deal with various addictions and try to make a living by taking work from the ruthless local mob kingpin (Armand Assante, with ferocious hair). Frankie (William Baldwin), the only sensible one in the bunch, senses something’s amiss when the junkie member of the pentad is found dead from an overdose. Was he murdered? Is this a good opportunity to hook up with the dead guy’s sister (Connie Britton), Frankie’s former flame, who left the neighborhood in disgust? It’s clear director Robert Moresco has watched his share of Coppola and Scorsese movies, but despite the relentless Mean Streets–like soundtrack of ’50s and ’60s hits, the story creaks with clichés, contrivances, and inertia; the bloody, pseudo-Shakespearean sparagmos of the ending is theater of the absurd. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 8 and 10:20 p.m. and tomorrow at 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30 p.m. Director Robert Moresco and actors Armand Assante and Connie Britton will be present at tonight’s 8 p.m. show.

— Peter Keough

SATURDAY 8

******A Phoenix Pick ******

ACTS OF WORSHIP

Writer/director Rosemary Rodriguez’s film follows Alix (Ana Reeder) and her painfully unglamorous community of junkies through the maze of readily available narcotics and abusive cycles on New York’s Lower East Side. After a slow start, the movie picks up when Digna (Michael Hyatt), a photographer who documents the dreary conditions of addiction, finds Alix unconscious from an overdose in front of her apartment. As Digna accepts responsibility for Alix’s well-being, the dangerous codependency of drugs and recovery infiltrates the tenuous balance that she’s maintained since her own departure from that lifestyle.

Rodriguez shows a skilled hand in depicting the conditions of confusion, detachment, and insecurity that both women live under as the men in their lives pull them in opposite directions and family or career obligations leave them feeling unfulfilled. In the end, Acts of Worship transforms itself from a film about drugs into an exploration of human relationships and outward appearances that reveals just how destructive self-doubt and alienation can be. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 1:45 and 4 p.m. Director Rosemary Rodriguez will be present at tonight’s 7 p.m. show.

— Erin Judge

IRON LADIES

The real-life exploits of the primarily gay and transgender volleyball team that won the 1996 Thai National Championship would appear to make for a heartfelt underdog story, but writer/director Yogyoot Thongkongtoon serves it up as a tedious drag show. This is a garish, one-note spectacle that sacrifices character development for cheap laughs. Apart from Mon (Sahaphap Tor), who’s been cut from teams because of his sexual preference, and Chai (a hunkish Jesdaporn Pholdee), the side’s one straight player, who sticks by the new coach’s decision to recruit the best talent (be it hetero, homo, or in between), there’s not a single participant who seems interested in the sport; they’re all worried about broken nails or running out of foundation. And Thongkongtoon’s flaming gay stereotypes undermine all platitudes about the evils of intolerance and prejudice. The shtick is cute for a while, but when it comes time to play the game, the essence of competition and camaraderie gets spiked. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m.

— Tom Meek

******A Phoenix Pick ******

PORN STAR:THE LEGEND OF RON JEREMY

Called " The Hedgehog " because he is short, fat, and hairy, Ron Jeremy may nonetheless be the most popular and successful of porn stars. So the subject alone justifies this slight documentary by Scott J. Gill that traces the career of a former special-ed teacher and aspiring actor from Queens who turned his unique asset into a uniquely American success story. I am speaking, of course, of Jeremy’s enormous sense of humor, which along with his ursine appearance has made him the idol of millions of fellow " schlubs " (his word) who can only dream of a life in which you get paid for eating chocolate cake off the back of a beautiful woman you’ve just sodomized. Compiled of interviews with " friends " like pornographer Al Goldstein ( " He’s a self-promotion machine! " ) and former Grandpa Munster Al Lewis ( " The worst act in show business, " he says of Jeremy’s stand-up routine) as well as surprisingly tame excerpts from Jeremy’s œuvre, Porn Star doesn’t penetrate very deeply into such issues as censorship, exploitation, and voyeurism, and though Jeremy discloses some of his secrets (he refrains from sex the day before he has to perform, and he attributes his ability to come on cue to thinking about his grandmother), by the end you might be asking, where’s the beef? Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and 4:15 p.m.

— Peter Keough

******A Phoenix Pick ******

TREADING WATER

Supersaturated with grave issues, director Lauren Himmel’s debut treats its subjects and characters with more respect than do most family dramas. Longshorewoman Casey Olsen (Angela Redman) struggles with her conservative family over bringing her social-worker girlfriend Alex (Nina Landey) home for Christmas. What Casey doesn’t know that Alex is the drug and alcohol counselor for one of her younger brothers. Add in an overbearing mother who can’t accept her adult lesbian daughter, an obtuse father, and a guilt-ridden middle brother and there’s no way to wrap up all the story lines.

Still, Himmel deals with lesbian topics admirably: instead of focusing on the women’s physical relationship or cliché’d coming-out issues, she concentrates on the difficulties of being in a long-term relationship, regardless of sexuality. And the chemistry between Redman and Landey elevates the film above the familiar subject matter. Filmed in Marblehead, Treading Water gives its characters a life of their own beyond the two-dimensional issues they’re dealing with. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2 and 4:15 p.m. Director Lauren Himmel will be present at tonight’s 7:30 show.

— Julia Cohen

SUNDAY 9

******A Phoenix Pick ******

EDGES OF THE LORD

Shot in Poland with big-name Hollywood stars, Yurek Bogayevicz’s film begins with bad accents and maudlin clichés, but once past those rough edges it becomes very strange indeed. As the Holocaust descends on Warsaw, 12-year-old Romek (Haley Joel Osment) takes refuge with a gentile family in the countryside, where he endures trials reminiscent of both Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird and René Clement’s film Forbidden Games. The Nazis are less a nuisance than the benighted locals, many of whom take advantage of the hideous situation to indulge their own greed or perversity. But there are also those who reveal an offbeat holiness — the little boy who plays Christ for an urchin congregation and the self-flagellating misanthropic priest (Willem Dafoe, in a clerical variation of the Max Schreck of Shadow of the Vampire) both redeem themselves in unexpected ways. As does the movie: the title alludes to the scraps of unleavened bread left behind when the host is cut from it, and Bogayevicz demonstrates how such rejects can possess the potential for sanctity, however weird. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2:15 and 4:45 p.m.

— Peter Keough

******A Phoenix Pick ******

PAULINE and PAULETTE

Not since Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Nature has there been a film that gazes so unflinchingly into the loneliness and humiliation of old age. And oddly enough, it’s the unusual setting (a small Flemish village on the Belgian coast) that gives Lieven Debrauwer’s movie a universal look and feel.

Pauline is a 66-year-old retarded woman who has lived with her sister Martha since their parents died. Pauline lives for visiting and pestering her sister Paulette, who owns a posh lingerie shop in the village. When Martha dies suddenly, Paulette takes Pauline in until other arrangements can be made; but sister Cecile has a lover and a tiny apartment in Brussels. Martha’s will stipulates that her assets will be equally distributed among her sisters only if one of them takes care of Pauline. The resulting clash of wills means little to Pauline, whose childlike awareness registers only pleasure, pain, comfort, and confusion. The film benefits from its stark look as well from its bold color structure and its realistic performances. What could have been a saccharine or predictable story instead proves haunting. To those of us who have contemplated growing old, at any rate. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 9 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and 4 p.m.

— Peg Aloi

THE THIRD WHEEL

The cliché " three’s a crowd " is taken to extremes in this dark comedy about a perfect date that implodes at every turn. Stanley (Luke Wilson), a corporate office minion, falls for Diana (Denise Richards), the firm’s buxom new efficiency expert. After a year and much chest beating with his cube mate (Ben Affleck), Stan finally scores the date. The evening starts to go wrong when he careers into Phil (a bug-eyed Jay Lacopo, who is also the film’s writer), a vagrant. Phil invites himself along and regales the pair with Rain Man banter and bleatings about life, love, and bread (yes, bread!).

Unevenly directed by Jordan Brady, the film has its moments, most notably the goofball high jinks of an office pool that hinges on the date’s outcome, but the dynamic among Stan, Diana, and Phil is strained and the climactic scene is disturbing and ill-conceived. Had Brady played more to the romantic or the gonzo side, he might have produced a more clear-cut result. Third Wheel is a befuddlement that, like Phil, appears slight on the outside while a dubious agenda whirls underneath. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m.

— Tom Meek

MONDAY 10

******A Phoenix Pick ******

CHAIN CAMERA

This stark documentary is MTV’s Real World minus the flash, PBS’s American High in the inner city. Chain Cinema is built on an interesting premise: 10 students at a multi-ethnic Los Angeles high school are given video cameras and instructed to film their lives for a week. After they’ve had their turn, they pass the cameras on to their friends, and so on. The project continues for a full year. The final product is a narrative compilation of the finest 16 edited down for clarity and chronology by director Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist).

Each person — from the bulimic, self-hating, aspiring stripper Rosemarie to the racially hyper-conscious Ethiopian Mena to the angsty black-haired lesbian Cinnamon — offers a vignette of a place and time many of us would prefer to ignore. The insecurity, self-realization, and open wounds come across like a bracing slap to the face, thanks to the select 16’s ease in front of the camera and their desperate desire to be heard. It’s hard not to listen. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:15 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and p.m.

Nina Willdorf

******A Phoenix Pick ******

ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS

Dogme 95 with romance and a sense of humor? That’s what Lone Scherfig delivers in Italian for Beginners, the fifth Dogme film and the first to be shot by a woman. Made for about $1 million, and the deserving choice of the international media jury at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Scherfig’s movie is set in a provincial Danish town, where a lonely half-dozen people — new temporary pastor Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), hotel employee Jørgen (Peter Gantzler), former football star Hal-Finn (Las Kaalund), hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), Italian waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), and bakery counter girl Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk) — try to open up their lives by attending an adult-education Italian class; gradually they open up to one another. The film isn’t all warm and fuzzy: three people die (there’s some black humor when Andreas discovers two funeral parties in the church at the same time), and it’s a rocky road everyone must take to romance. But Scherfig is a master of sly touches (after the irascible footballer is fired from his job at the stadium restaurant, he ditches his Danish national-team jersey in favor of an Italian one), and when at the end she sends them all off to Venice, they’ve become an appealing blend of Danish and Italian temperaments. Best of all, the back-to-basics cast is uniformly excellent. This kind of production could give Dogme a good name. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:45 and 10:15 p.m. and tomorrow at 12:15 and 3 p.m. Director Lone Scherfig will be present at tonight’s 7:45 p.m. show.

— Jeffrey Gantz

NOVOCAINE

From first-time director David Atkins comes this quirky, uneven, Roger Corman–esque black comedy that begs the question: do dentists walk on the wild side? Steve Martin (his unique talents utterly wasted) is engaged to his perky, perfect hygienist (Laura Dern, not as toothsome as usual, but her tai kwan do moves are impressive), and he maintains a gleaming white perfect existence. When a bedraggled, Demerol-addicted urchin (a miscast Helena Bonham Carter, who nevertheless turns in the film’s best performance) seduces him, he becomes obsessed with her ugly world (drugs, incest, murder, ill-fitting vintage clothing). Watching an uptight professional unravel as he chases an unattainable twist of tail is familiar stuff, but there are some interesting visuals (X-ray photography in the opening credits) and funny plot twists, so even those who are phobic about going to the dentist might be able to grin and bear this one. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and 4 p.m. Director David Atkins will be present at tonight’s show, and actor Steve Martin will receive the festival’s " Film Excellence " award.

— Peg Aloi

TUESDAY 11

******A Phoenix Pick ******

GRATEFUL DAWG

This loving little (80 minutes) documentary explores the relationship and collaboration between guitarist Jerry Garcia and mandolinist Dave " Dawg " Grisman. Produced by Grisman’s daughter Gillian, the film features previously unseen concert footage (from Sweetwater in Mill Valley), a quarter-century’s worth of unreleased audio tracks, and footage of basement, er, living-room sessions (the " Pizza Tapes " ) that took place in Grisman’s home. Jerry is portrayed as the quintessential freewheelin’ hippie who, according to Grisman, was consistently informal in his approach to the music. And bluegrass maestro Grisman looks like nothing so much as a Falstaffian rabbi, his playing belying his fleshy fingers. For all Grateful Dawg’s weaknesses (its disjointedness; the precious kudos to Jerry after his death), the music holds it together. This is a jovial and no-bullshit glimpse into intimate, intense musicmaking. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:45 and 10 p.m. Director Gillian Grisman will be present at tonight’s 7:45 show.

— Peg Aloi

IN THE BEDROOM

A lobster pot illustrates the danger of intimacy in Todd Field’s restrained but flawed adaptation of an André Dubus story. If two lobsters climb in, laconic Maine native Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) explains, all is well, but if three are " in the bedroom . . .  " That third in his bedroom might be his son and only child, Frank (Nick Stahl), whose best interests represent a sore spot between Matt and wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek). At issue is Frank’s fling with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older, soon-to-be divorcée with two kids and an ex who’s a flaming asshole. Ruth sees nothing but trouble for her Ivy League–bound pet; Matt sees, maybe, vicarious youth. We all see the brutal crime coming, and for the most part Field sets the melodrama in such an authentically detailed setting (at times it seems to slip into Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine) and with such convincing acting (too much so with Spacek, who comes off as a shrew) that they almost overcome the generic gratifications at the end. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 3:15 p.m. Actress Sissy Spacek will receive the festival’s " Film Excellence " award at tonight’s 7 p.m. show.

Peter Keough

LIFE AS A HOUSE

This is what happens when a Hollywood filmmaker looks up a word like " allegory. " Irwin Winkler’s movie opens with George Monroe (Kevin Kline) pissing into the Pacific, and it’s downhill from there. In short order George loses his job building models at an architectural firm (the computers make them cheaper, and movies like this might persuade the studios to do likewise) and discovers he has only four months to live. So he resolves to tear down the old shack he lives in (bequeathed to him by his own abusive father) and build his dream house (on property that looks to be worth the multi-million-dollar budget of this movie) and in so doing reconcile with his punked-out, teenage loser of a son and maybe even his ex-wife (Kristin Scott-Thomas). He’s rebuilding his " life, " you see. Although the film is notable for its fine acting (Kline, despite the woes of Job, is always funny, never maudlin, kind of a moribund version of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) and unembarrassed sex, the shameless manipulativeness of it all calls to mind the more woeful aspects of Field of Dreams and Pay It Forward. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 6 and 9 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2 and 4:30 p.m. Director Irwin Winkler and actor Kevin Kline will be present at tonight’s 6 p.m. show.

— Peter Keough

TAPE

Adapted from the Stephen Belber play by Richard Linklater, Tape is not much more than a claustrophobic actor’s exercise, but it might be just the kind that the usually anemic Ethan Hawke could use. No more the vapid nice guy (even in Hamlet), he’s Vince, a Jockey-briefs-wearing beer-swigging dope-dealing asshole. At times he even turns into Kevin Bacon. Vince is hosting high-school pal Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), a supercilious indie filmmaker (here we go with the self-reflexivity) who’s premiering his first feature at the Lansing film festival, and he takes the opportunity to confront Johnny about a possible date rape Johnny committed 10 years ago against fellow classmate Amy (Uma Thurman), Vince’s first crush and now a local assistant district attorney. Belber’s play is minor-league Edward Albee, a gradual unveiling of deceptions with some zingers in the dialogue (mostly from Hawke) but ultimately a gimmick — it’s 85 minutes spent locked in a fetid motel room with unpleasant people and no punch line. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:15 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 p.m. and 2 and 4:15 p.m.

— Peter Keough

X-PATRIOTS

Manny and Dexter are two black Americans living in the Netherlands, where Manny is married to a white Dutch woman. Hoping to revitalize his stagnant acting career, Manny recruits Dexter, his former roommate from New York, to write him a one-man show. Instead of working on the play, they spend their time dealing with their thorny sexual and romantic relationships with women — white and black — and with their own troubled senses of self.

Boasting plenty of expository monologues about race relations and clunky lines like " I’ve gotta move now, baby, before I feel like I never tried anything, " X-Patriots is often soap-opera talky. As it gropes its way through complex sexual, social, and psychological territory, the ambitious story teeters on the verge of self-indulgence, but there are a few moments — mostly quiet ones — that feel real. Writer/director Darien Sills-Evans (whom you might have seen on Cosby or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) stars and produces with Bobby Lyle. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:15 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m.

— Jake Miller

WEDNESDAY 12

ALEX IN WONDER

Writer/director Drew Ann Rosenberg’s 1970s-set tale spotlights the title character’s calamitous junior year in high school. Although Alex has grown up in a freewheeling California household, with bohemian parents and a parade of freaky boarders, there are constants to which she clings. One is that her aptitude for ballet will usher her into Juilliard and a career in dance. And she has her parents — but then they split up. Now she finds it hard to concentrate on dance; she even wonders, " Why bother? " Ultimately, of course, she learns to be more flexible and open to the moment.

Would that the movie were more open to the moment. Although the milieu seems lived-in, Alex in Wonder feels as if it had been scripted according to a checklist. Everyone gets his or her requisite tantrum and heartfelt monologue. Newcomer Angela Gots is appealing, if a bit too composed, as Alex, and she’s a talented dancer. And Ellen Greene and Robert Hays are colorful as the post–Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice parents who reveal a fragility that Alex must learn to live with. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 1:45 and 4 p.m.

— Betsy Sherman

DRIVE-IN MOVIE MEMORIES

The nostalgia that people feel for drive-in movie theaters is curious when you consider that in their later years many drive-ins featured films like Blazing Stewardesses and Satan’s Cheerleaders and showed porno movies out of doors, on 50-foot screens in residential neighborhoods. Directed by Kurt Kuenne and produced by drive-in historians and authors Don and Susan Sanders, Drive-In Movie Memories outlines the history of the institution, careering from earnestness to high camp. Between clips of archival footage we get intercut interviews with Leonard Maltin, Joe Bob Briggs, B-movie queens, schlock producers, and character actors. Sometimes the voices of the talking heads overlap, in what seems to be an attempt to make their mundane comments seem fascinating and psychedelic. Drive-In is only 50 minutes long and there’s still a fair amount of filler, but the film is weirdly charming, and there are a few gems, like the promos for snack-bar hamburgers, which Maltin calls the most disgusting food he has ever seen. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m. and tomorrow at 12:15, 2:15, and 4:30 p.m.

— Jake Miller

EVERYTHING FOR A REASON

Greek-American filmmaker Vlas Parlapanides’s Everything for a Reason belies its own title: this derivative romantic comedy is a script desperate for a raison d’être. Working from Woody Allen’s blueprints, it gives us a writer’s-blocked screenwriter who’s too repressed to go after his perfect woman. Sleazy guys and teasing girls (the unlikable leads and their creepy pals) trade penis jokes and spit takes until the unsatisfying finale, in which our hero doesn’t attain any insight but simply goes love crazy. The only selling point is that the lead characters are Greek-American. In fact, our hero is arguably falling in love with his own culture, with a woman as a substitute (as usual), and his repression is partly fallout from his parents’ old-school arranged marriage. But these cultural elements are left vague, peripheral, colorless and fruitless. The most stereotypically Greek thing about this film is its anal-sex joke. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2 and 4:15 p.m.

— John Ruch

******A Phoenix Pick ******

LOVE INVENTORY

This is the kind of unclassifiable little gem that makes festivals worth attending. Shot on video and looking like a home movie, Israeli filmmaker David Fisher’s autobiographical effort (the title needs an overhaul) turns into a crafty exploration of the meaning of family, individuality, mortality, and memory. After his father dies, leaving him and his thirtysomething brothers and sister without parents, Fisher concocts the idea of getting the surviving family together to hunt down the fate of twins their mother supposedly gave birth to in 1952. Sammy allegedly died in infancy; the girl, unnamed, mysteriously vanished.

Or did they exist at all? The search becomes a cross between The X-Files and a family outing, but the echoes of the Holocaust — which the Fisher parents survived — are never far away. Even more engaging are the indelible portraits of the Fisher family, whose members are curmudgeonly and one-of-a-kind but familiar to all with families of their own. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2 and 4:30 p.m.

— Peter Keough

******A Phoenix Pick ******

REVOLUTION O.S.

For computer illiterates like myself, it’s beyond comprehension that the damn thing even works, let alone what the economic forces are behind its production and distribution. We just take it for granted that a soulless corporate tyranny runs everything. J.T.S. Moore’s concise, talking-heads documentary (O.S. for " other source " ) insists that there is an alternative to the Microsoft monopoly in the Gnu and Linux systems that have been developed by latter-day hippie hackers and cyber revolutionaries to wrest software from the prison of intellectual-property rights. Is it latter-day Marxism? (A Moscow businessman said their ideas sounded too much like communism to work in Russia.) Creeping corporate capitalism? (When it finally went public, the Linux IPO was the fastest-rising in Wall Street history.) As earnest as Gnu founder Richard Stallman may be, his message of individual freedom and social responsibility begins to sound like clever marketing, and Linux creator Linus Tarvalds’s smile starts to resemble that of Bill Gates. Screens at the Copley Place today at noon and 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.

— Peter Keough

TRAINING DAY

Denzel Washington plays a cynical LAPD narc taken to task when paired with idealistic rookie Ethan Hawke in this police drama from director Antoine Fuqua. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m. Director Antoine Fuqua will be present at tonight’s 7 p.m. show.

— Peter Keough

THURSDAY 13

HEIST

David Mamet returns to the macho world of crime and deception with this tale of an aging master thief lured into the traditional last big heist. Gene Hackman stars with Rebecca Pigeon, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, and Sam Rockwell. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m.

— Peter Keough

HOMETOWN LEGEND

A fall chill is in the air — time for another schmaltzy football movie. This indie entry repeats the sins of those from Hollywood. Hometown Legend is about — hosanna — Alabama high-school football, and a moribund town whose pride is hitched to the fortunes of the Athens Crusaders. Our holy trinity is the flinty Coach, the maverick Jock, and the devoted Girl. The Jock is gutsy running back Elvis Jackson, who’s fixated on the school’s football scholarship. Hunky Nick Cornish was presumably given three words by director James Anderson: young Tom Cruise. The Girl, played by Lacey Chabert, is a smidge more edgy than the typical football-movie girl. Terry O’Quinn plays returning Coach Schuler, who had been leading the Crusaders to glory until tragedy struck 12 years earlier. Wearing a Tom Landry hat and spouting Bear Bryant aphorisms, O’Quinn can’t inflate this stale material. The premise is respectable: the coach wrenches the players’ attention away from the scholarship and toward selfless team play. It’s just a chore getting there, what with the gooey Americana soundtrack and kneejerk visual motifs. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 4 p.m.

— Betsy Sherman

IRON MONKEY

Yuen Woo-Ping, who did the martial-arts choreography for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed this 1993 Hong Kong thriller about the title hero, who’s played by Donnie Yen. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m. and tomorrow at noon and 2:30 and 4:45 p.m.

— Peter Keough

NOW AND FOREVER

You probably know what a Canada goose looks like. Now how about a Canada turkey? Despite being a Canadian indie film, Now and Forever is a glossy, solemnly PC interracial romance (safely chaste, of course) of the sort you could imagine Sandra Bullock making. Mia Kirshner (Exotica) stars as a troubled small-town girl who finds a lifelong friend and father figure in a local Native American boy (Smoke Signals’ Adam Beach). She can’t admit she loves him, and he can’t stop her from dating Caucasian creeps — especially since he’s a silly noble-savage stereotype who spends most of his day in voiceover reveries saying things like " It was as if I heard the ancient flutes calling me. " (Or was that just the chili dog he had for lunch?) Beach had a more three-dimensional character when he played Squanto for Disney in 1994. Trying to get some emotional whomp out of its frustrating chastity, the film relies on a twist ending — unfortunately, the same one as in that noted psychological thriller that Hollywood turned out a couple summers ago. Screens at the Copley Place tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2 and 4:30 p.m.

— John Ruch

SAY YOU’LL BE MINE

I’d rather not after seeing this vapid and formulaic romantic comedy. Nicky Katt, who made such an appealing hit man in The Limey, plays Ben, a whiny would-be writer in Manhattan who experiences a crisis when his long-time college crush, Julia (Libby Langdon), decides to marry his best friend, Josh (Daniel Lapaine). On the unrequited rebound, Ben takes up with easy-to-please actress Megan (Megan Ward). A catalogue of smug bromides passing as dialogue from tediously self-involved cardboard characters (a self-help bestseller actually serves as a plot device), Brad Kane’s sloppily narrated (gratuitous and inane flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks) debut feature exhibits signs of life only when Justine Bateman as Ben’s hardboiled lawyer sister takes over. Woody Allen has a lot to answer for. Screens at the Boston Common tonight at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. and 2 and 4 p.m. Actress/producer Libby Langdon will appear at tonight’s 7:15 p.m. screening.

— Peter Keough

Issue Date: September 6 - 13, 2001