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Zombie sheep?

Plus Donkey Kong, the Super Amigos, and ‘the greatest film of all time’ at the IFFB
By PHOENIX FILM STAFF  |  April 29, 2007

After a top-notch first two days, the Fifth Independent Film Festival of Boston weathers some ups and downs through the remainder of its schedule — which probably reflects the erratic quality of indie fare at this time more than any programming weakness. At worst the festival serves as a cross-section of the state of independent filmmaking today. At best it provides a local venue for some of the best movies of the year. Here’s what we were able to preview.

— Peter Keough, Film Editor

Click here to stay updated with the IFFB/ThePhoenix.com videocast live from the festival:
Volume One: Opening Night | Volume Two: On Broadway | Volume Three: Day Night | Volume Four: Filmmakers on Filmmaking

FRIDAY 27
BLACK SHEEP
121 MINUTES | BRATTLE: APRIL 27 at MIDNIGHT + COOLIDGE CORNER: APRIL 28 at MIDNIGHT

“I’ve been attacked by genetically engineered monsters, jumped off a moving vehicle, been chased across a paddock, dragged into a torture chamber, pulled into a mountain of rotting flesh . . . ” So laments Experience (Danielle Mason) about her, uh, experiences midway through first-time director Jonathan King’s zombie-sheep film. That’s right, zombie sheep. From New Zealand. They have a taste for humans, who once bitten become hungry weresheep. If this sounds like something Peter Jackson might’ve cooked up during his Bad Taste/Braindead days, he must have thought so too: his Weta Workshop brings the creatures to unconvincing life. (Intentionally so. I think.) Problem is, the bloodthirsty flock are livelier than King’s film. Whereas Jackson’s early pictures were effortlessly gonzo, King’s is contrived and, well, baaaad.

— Brett Michel
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DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT
94 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 27 at 7:15 + BRATTLE: APRIL 29 at 2:30 PM

What Luisa Williams’s enigmatic, clumsy young character in Julia Loktev’s equally ambiguous vérité-styled film initially lacks in clarity, she more than makes up for in polite congeniality. It’s no exaggeration to say that half of her dialogue consists of “Thank you.” Which is strange when you consider that she’s responding to hooded men of unknown origin who are prepping her all-too-willing ingénue for an ominous mission that’s only gradually revealed. Much of the pleasure of Loktev’s approach derives from this withholding of key information, a notion I’ll honor by not going into plot specifics. First-time actress Williams is a revelation, her expressive eyes acting as a barometer of her transformation from seeming certainty to terrifying doubt as she’s stranded in an urban nightmare of her own making.

— Brett Michel

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HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS
84 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 27 at 10:15 PM + APRIL 29 at 8:15 WITH DIRECTOR JOE SWANBERG AND ACTOR GRETA GERWIG

Hannah’s stairs seem like those in the Escher prints that don’t go anywhere, and that describes seems this entry in the bunch-of-cool-but-inarticulate-twentysomethings-talking-about-stuff genre that Andrew Bujalski brought to full bloom in Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski has a role (and wrote the screenplay, with a host of others) in this aimless indulgence from Joe Swanberg (LOL) as one of three slackers seduced and abandoned by Hannah (Ellen DeGeneres look-alike Greta Gerwig). Hannah’s problem: she’s never satisfied. Also, she thinks the world is a bad place because nobody listens to anybody. But then, if you listen to her “ramblings,” she has nothing to say. Nonetheless, certain images, like two people in a tub playing the 1812 Overture on trumpets, are worth the visit.

— Peter Keough

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KING OF KONG
90 MINUTES | COOLIDGE CORNER: APRIL 27 at 10 PM + BRATTLE: APRIL 28 at 7:15 PM

Florida lawyer/video-game scapegoater Jack Thompson has it all wrong. His crusade to keep games out of the hands of the impressionable youth/future mass murderers of America ignores the fact that most players are over 30. Hell, he need look no farther than his own backyard to find one of the vilest cretins to ever place his hand on a joystick: Billy Mitchell, a blowhard hot-sauce magnate who overestimates his 17-year reign as Donkey Kong world-record holder. When unemployed family man Steve Wiebe challenges Mitchell’s score of 874,300, the stage is set for Seth Gordon’s involving and improbably rousing documentary. Even if Mitchell weren’t so ridiculously self-important, it’d be impossible not to root for life-long loser Wiebe, the nicest underdog to come along since Rocky.

— Brett Michel

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MONKEY WARFARE
75 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 27 at 9:45 PM + BRATTLE: APRIL 29 at 7:30 PM WITH DIRECTOR REG HARKEMA AND ACTORS DON McKELLAR AND TRACY WRIGHT

The state of the Revolution is implied by the title of Reginald Harkema’s ruefully funny tale of aging countercultural guerrillas. Dan and Linda (Don McKellar and Tracy Wright, the indie Nick and Nora Charles have come a long way from the time when their slogans meant something; they pick through trash and sell their finds on e-Bay to make ends meet until 20ish, idealistic Susan accosts Dan at a yard sale and seduces the pair with her connection with a source for “B.C. Organic.” Her youthful ardor doesn’t fire them up as much as the pot, but it does underscore the eternal need for and futility of resistance. Leonard Cohen’s “The Old Revolution” has never been put to better use.

— Peter Keough

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PUNK’S NOT DEAD
115 MINUTES | BRATTLE at 9:15 PM WITH DIRECTOR SUSAN DYNNER

But then, what is punk? Susan Dynner’s documentary zips through punk’s late 70s heyday with clips of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and counterpoises interviews with some of the craggy, still faithful veterans of that time looking back today. In between lies about 30 years of music history, but the film doesn’t pick up steam till the onset of grunge with Nirvana and punk/pop with Green Day and then the current predicament, as punk provides the soundtrack for SUV commercials, mall boutiques sell dog collars to suburban wanna-bes, and groups claiming to be punk go platinum. Wasn’t punk about being independent from all that? Dynner poses the question but loses it in the blur of talking heads and split-second performance clips that all end up sounding the same.

— Peter Keough

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SUPER AMIGOS
ENGLISH + SPANISH | 82 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 27 at 8 PM + BRATTLE: APRIL 29 at 5 PM

With great power comes great responsibility and with no power comes make-believe. Somewhere in between come the Super Amigos, the subject of Arturo Pérez Torres’s infectiously upbeat documentary. Clad in the masks, tights, and capes of Mexican wrestlers, they battle social ills in Mexico City. Super Animal dumps meat on the steps of city hall in his crusade against bullfighting. Super Gay organizes volleyball games in the park to defeat homophobia. Ecologista gives out tickets to people who buy Christmas trees in his fight against deforestation. Well, it’s a start. More substantive is the work of Super Barrio, who claims to have prevented 10,000 evictions, and Fray Tormenta, the real-life Nacho Libre, a wrestling priest who uses his winnings to support shelters for street kids. Pérez Torres is a hero too, using animation and zesty editing to bring these legends to life.

— Peter Keough

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SATURDAY 28

AUDIENCE OF ONE
88 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 28 at 3:30 PM + APRIL 29 at 3:15 PM WITH DIRECTOR MICHAEL JACOBS

In 1995, after receiving a vision of God, Pentecostal pastor Richard Gazowsky started a Christian film production company with the goal of making the greatest film of all time: Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph. Michael Jacobs’s documentary examines the exciting, agonizing, and frightening process by which Gazowsky’s dream — a Star Wars–like religious epic shot on 65mm film — was not realized. Gazowsky is an ideal subject, an initially affable man whose angry obsession begins to show itself as difficulties accumulate, and the supporting cast of church members, amateur actors, and wackos ensures that the film is never dull. Whether Jacobs is condescending to religion or telling it like it is, this documentary is the kind of thing you can’t make up.

— Richard Beck

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GREENSBORO: CLOSER TO THE TRUTH
98 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 28 at 2:30 PM + APRIL 29 at 12:45 PM WITH DIRECTOR ADAM ZUCKER

On November 3, 1979, members of the Communist Workers Party clashed with the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Klan had guns, and they killed five CWP members. Two trials resulted in the acquittal of all defendants. Adam Zucker’s bizarre documentary lovingly chronicles the survivors’ formation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in the hope of putting some demons to rest. The story Zucker tells is a personal one — only those directly involved with producing the Commission’s report seem to have any interest in it — but he’s so insistent on his film’s broader social and moral import that he frequently contradicts his own material, and many of the obviously staged scenes feel manipulative.

— Richard Beck

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GRETCHEN
98 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE at 9:45 PM WITH DIRECTOR STEVEN COLLINS

The full toll that Napoleon Dynamite will take on independent cinema remains to be seen. Already its fragile weirdness has degraded into the contrived cuteness of Little Miss Sunshine, and that almost won the Best Picture Oscar. Maybe the trend will end with this interminable trifle from Steven Collins. Courtney Davis shifts into Jon Heder mode as the title film rarity, a shy and harassed high-schooler. Gretchen has kittens on her nightshirt, but she’s drawn to worthless bullying boys, a pattern that gets her committed to Shady Acres. She breaks out of there with another jerk, tracks down her estranged father, who of course resembles the creeps that attract her, and so on, all predictable clichés made more excruciating by the film’s sophomoric irony and contempt for its subject.

— Peter Keough
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LOW AND BEHOLD
89 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 28 at 2:15 PM + APRIL 29 at 6 PM

Credit indie filmmakers with taking on such messy topics as Katrina and its aftermath, but sometimes good intentions go awry. Zack Godshall tries to graft an exemplary story onto real locations with some real people, but the reality subverts rather than enhances the fiction. Turner, who looks and acts like a student missionary, joins his raffish uncle as a claims adjustor in New Orleans, interviewing victims of the storm. This is where the real people come in; their accounts, shot in documentary, hand-held style, are funny, appalling, authentic, but extraneous to the narrative. The phonies, though, all seem to have a self-righteous attitude as they give Turner a hard time. Then there’s Nixon, who gets Turner to enlist him as a guide in return for helping him look for his dog. Will Nixon lead Turner to the truth about New Orleans? Or will his character be a mere exploitation of the tragedy?

— Peter Keough
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PROTAGONIST
90 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 28 at 5:15 PM + COOLIDGE CORNER: APRIL 29 at 12:30 PM

A gay former evangelist, a kung fu expert, a German terrorist, and a bank robber walk into a documentary, and the result isn’t a bad joke but an illustration of the Greek notion of tragedy. Jessica Yu interweaves the seemingly disparate but equally enthralling lives of Mark Pierpont, Mark Salzman, Hans Joachim Klein, and Joe Loya, and from the mix emerges a common pattern dramatized by intermissions with titles like “Character,” “Catharsis,” and “Resolution” and acted out by puppet stagings of Medea and Electra in the original Greek. Pretentious? Not at all, and certainly not trite, as the film demonstrates that heroism is not a platitude but an ancient, universal, and inescapable ordeal.

— Peter Keough
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STRANGE CULTURE
75 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 28 at 7:30 PM + APRIL 29 at 3 PM

A lot of people whine about the loss of civil rights post-9/11, but has anyone really suffered? Ask artist Steve Kurtz. Three years ago he was working on an exhibit at Mass MoCA designed to show how to determine whether food has been genetically altered. His wife and collaborator suddenly died of heart failure, and when the EMTs arrived and saw the Petri dishes he was using for the show, they called in an FBI Hazmat team. The feds charged Kurtz with bioterrorism; he’s still awaiting trial. He can’t talk even about the case because of a gag order, so filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson engaged Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan to act it out. An intriguing idea, but the wrong topic — the film blurs the real and re-created when the reality is scary enough.

— Peter Keough
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SUNDAY 29
DARIUS GOES WEST
94 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE at 2:30 PM WITH ACTOR DARIUS WEEMS

Can the Somerville Theatre accommodate wheelchairs? Let’s hope someone has phoned ahead, as the folks there advise (should you require access, the folks there advise phoning “in advance”) — otherwise it’ll be embarrassing when Darius Weems, the then-15-year-old star of Logan Smalley’s heartwarming documentary, rolls into town for the East Coast premiere. Perhaps the Somerville should also hand out Kleenex in anticipation of the film’s affecting portrait of Weems, who suffers from terminal Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and the small group of college students who spent three weeks in an RV traveling from his home town of Athens, Georgia, to Los Angeles and back. Their goal was not only to test handicapped accessibility in America but also to persuade MTV’s Pimp My Ride to customize Weems’s wheelchair. Was his wish fulfilled? The fraternal journey’s so compelling, you’ll be happy to go along for the ride.

— Brett Michel
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THE KILLER WITHIN
85 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE at 1 PM

Macky Alston’s documentary takes on added weight after the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. Bob Bechtel, an avuncular, 70ish psychology professor at the University of Arizona, shocked his family, friends, and colleagues by confessing that he was a killer. Some 50 years before as a college student, he’d responded to perceived bullying by shooting his roommate, who was asleep in bed. Not just that, but Bechtel was carrying enough firepower to accomplish his initial mission to wipe out the whole dorm — which in 1955 would have been the first such mass killing. Horrified by the first murder, he turned himself in, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, spent five years in a mental hospital, then started life anew. Although Killer occasionally strays into touchy-feely terrain, it wisely leaves the big questions unanswered. Does bullying breed murder? Can a killer be rehabilitated? And the most troubling, why did he do it?

— Peter Keough
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THE THIRD MONDAY IN OCTOBER
90 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE: APRIL 29 at 2:30 PM + APRIL 30 at 7:30 PM

Precociousness on film can be riveting, as in Vanessa Roth’s account of the frantic process of junior-high elections. The film chronicles 11 student campaigns from school districts in Atlanta, Austin, San Francisco, and Marin County in California. But the anxieties of campaigning at such a formative age are so applicable to every school that I lost track of the locations early on. The filmmakers, correctly I think, portray the pressures of middle-school politics as a common experience. If Roth had labored over the parallels between the adolescent elections and our real-world officials, his modest movie would have crumbled. The Third Monday in October works because it presents a simple portrait of prepubescent eagerness without all the overt moralizing of most political films. It’s politics minus the special interests.

— Paul Babin
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SUNDAY 29
RUMBO A LAS GRANDES LIGAS
SPANISH | 54 MINUTES | SOMERVILLE THEATRE at 8 PM WITH DIRECTOR JARED GOODMAN AND PRODUCER ERAN LOBEL

In the sun-baked Dominican Republic, boys play béisbol with passion. They love the game; they also know a big-league contract could change their lives forever. Case in point: David Ortiz. As one rangy lefty swings a stick at a bottle top, he professes his hope (“God willing”) to be like Big Papi. Jared Goodman’s Spanish-language documentary traces the “road to the big leagues.” It’s a long one — for every guy like Ortiz, who started on dirt roads using his sister’s doll heads for baseballs, there are hundreds more who don’t have it. Or, worse, who did and lost it all, like one prospect who signed with the Sox only to be banished from the bigs when he was found to have forged his birth date. Few who do beat the odds on this tiny island ever forget where they’re from — as Ortiz acknowledges, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the person I was then, and the person I am now.”

— Mike Miliard
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On the Web
Independent Film Festival of Boston: http://www.iffboston.com/

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