Film Reviews: September/October 2007

Europe Unhinged: CINEMA16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS

(Warp Films; on DVD)

After slipping through the looking-glass and reading the nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaims: “It seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are.” The same can be said for Cinema16’s European DVD, a collection of 16 often surreal shorts by European directors including Jan Svankmajer, whose 13-minute screen adaptation of “Jabberwocky,” intended as a teaching aid for students of psychoanalysis, slaps viewers upside the head with a collage of doll limbs boiling on a stove and served from a teapot, a wardrobe dancing through a forest, and toy soldiers marching from the sleeves of a boy’s sailor suit, only to be bulldozed by what looks like a young girl’s casket.

Equally disturbing, in a Brothers Grimm meets Beatrix Potter sort of way, is Run Wrake’s Rabbit, an adult fairy tale animated from a set of 1950s educational stickers. Then there’s playwright Martin McDonagh’s first foray into film, Six Shooter. Billed as a “black and bloody Irish comedy,” the 27-minute narrative follows a grieving man’s train trip from his dying wife’s bedside to the wrong side of a pistol.

There’s more to this two-DVD set than doom and desolation. Tony MacDonald’s Je t’aime John Wayne is a love story starring a Brit obsessed with French screen icon Jean-Paul Belmondo. And film buffs should appreciate the university projects of Lars Von Trier (Nocturne), Ridley Scott (Boy and Bicycle), and Christopher Nolan (Doodlebug), directors of Dogville, Blade Runner, and Memento, respectively. —Kristen Mueller

CAN MR. SMITH GET TO WASHINGTON ANYMORE?

(At Risk Films; on DVD)

When the baby-faced, squeaky-voiced, 29-year-old Jeff Smith announced he was running for U.S. Congress in Missouri, he was ridiculed by many people, including his family. But as this engaging and fast-paced documentary shows, a grassroots campaign with a dedicated staff of volunteers can still shake up the entrenched political establishment. The movie follows Smith as he campaigns door-to-door in impoverished St. Louis neighborhoods, trying to out-hustle his well-funded, well-connected but aloof and uninspiring opponent, Russ Carnahan, from one of Missouri’s most powerful families. Director Frank Popper takes an unsparing look at the not-yet-cynical political neophytes on Smith’s staff, using humor, an enjoyable sound track, and many handheld, behind-the-scenes shots to pull in even casual viewers to the palpable enthusiasm exuded by Smith’s campaign. —Bennett Gordon

YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME

(Palm Pictures; on DVD)

Roky Erickson, the subject of this documentary, was the front man for the 13th Floor Elevators, the band that kicked rock toward psychedelia in the 1960s. But this is a film about music the way King Lear is a play about government. Erickson, who was notorious for psychedelic excess, was arrested in 1969 with a joint, declared insane, and subjected to electroshock therapy. He emerged a shadow, recorded a few albums, and ultimately succumbed to the voices in his head. Director Keven McAlester picks up the tale as Erickson, now approaching 60, is cared for by his deeply troubled mother while he obsessively sorts junk mail and relaxes to the sound of several radios blasting simultaneously. Salvation comes in the form of his little brother, a tuba prodigy who wrestles for control of his future. The details unfold at a languid pace, resulting in a mesmerizing, suspenseful family psychodrama. —Joseph Hart

THE CAMDEN 28

(First Run Features; on DVD)

Here’s a faith-based initiative that’s not on the Bush administration’s funding wish list: antiwar protest. In this stirring documentary, filmmaker Anthony Giacchino turns back the clock to 1971, when some of the most effective resistance to the Vietnam War came from the Catholic left. Using archival footage, interviews, and a rich collection of photographs and audio recordings, the documentary traces the actions of the Camden 28, a group of mostly Catholic war resisters, as they plotted and destroyed draft records at a Camden, New Jersey, post office, and the trial that followed. The film takes surprising twists and turns and ultimately offers a call for vigorous dissent in the face of war. “We saw children on fire,” says one activist, the Reverend Michael Doyle. “What do you do when a child is on fire in a war that was a mistake? . . . Write a letter?” —Anthony Kaufman

CROSSING THE LINE

(Kino International; in theaters)

British director Daniel Gordon tells the fascinating story of James Joseph Dresnok, a U.S. soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962 and lives there comfortably to this day. (“I feel at home,” he says.) Exceptionally crafted, with a treasure trove of historical and present-day footage shot in Pyongyang, the documentary recounts Dresnok’s experiences and his contentious relationship with three other American servicemen who crossed the DMZ. Initially outcasts, they became North Korean celebrities, starring in action films as evil Americans. While the story is absorbing enough, Crossing the Line also brilliantly conveys the elusive search for the truth in North Korea: Is the film a heartfelt confession of a changed man or a showcase for Kim Jong-Il’s successful indoctrination and propaganda? —Anthony Kaufman

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