An American Crime
Directed by Tommy O’Haver
Starring Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, Bradley Whitford, James Franco

They say that truth is stranger than fiction.  Sometimes it is, as are the atrocities that have occurred in the unlikeliest of places—in this case, suburban Indiana.  The banality of evil has rarely been shown in as graphic of a manner as in this film.  The framing device is the murder trial of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), who is accused of one of the most notorious crimes of the 1960’s: the torture and murder of one Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page).  The prosecutor (Bradley Whitford) interrogates various witnesses, whose stories are told through flashbacks.  This is one heck of a scary movie.  (EL)



Away from Her
Directed by Sarah Polley
Starring Julie Christie, Michael Murphy, Olympia Dukakis

This expansion of Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” gives us the characters of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie), who have been married for decades and are still in love.  Unfortunately, the early signs of Alzheimer’s have set in, and Fiona knows that eventually she will have to be sent away to a nursing home.  Grant realizes this as well, and he takes the revelation much harsher than his wife.  (EL)


Broken English
Directed by Zoe Cassavetes
Starring Parker Posey, Drea de Mateo, Melvil Poupaud, Gena Rowlands, Peter Bogdanovich, Justin Theroux

Nora (Parker Posey) is in her mid-thirties, living in New York City.  She has friends, but they’ve found their own lifemates.  Her mother (Gena Rowlands) smartly tells her that she needs to stop going out with married couples.  Sage advice for Nora who desperately wants to find true love; but she’s trying too hard.  Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English is honest and thought-inducing entertainment.  Parker Posey plays sardonic and depressed better than anyone.  Here, her Nora works a necessary but “not her” job and can’t go to sleep at night without the assistance of pills.  She’s still attractive enough to garner the attention of more than a few eligible men, but she keeps letting lust move in faster than more long-term emotions.  Her entire approach is wrong, she flirts too easily, drinks too much, and can be bedded down with a smile on the first date.  She knows that what she’s doing isn’t working, but has no idea what other options are available to her.  In one very telling scene, she reveals her naivety by crying at lunch with her mother, saying something that to the objective listener sounds so very trite. We laugh, some of us, uncomfortably.  Broken English feels extremely genuine, real, and isn’t just for the gal crowd.  (JH)


Directed By Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Starring Jô Odagiri, Nao Omori, Yû Aoi, Makiko Esumi

Set in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, Bugmaster concerns the exploits of a Mushishi or Bugmaster—a kind of shaman who has the power to exorcize Mushi, or bugs, bizarre amoeba-like spirits who create mischief in the world and are invisible to most.  The film is beautifully acted, shot, and scored, although the music is not in the least bit oriental and features the unlikely addition of didgeridoos.  Katshuhiro Otomo has crafted a meditative mood piece, featuring startlingly original special effects, but the climax has an emotional resonance but lacks oomph, meaning the overall effect of the movie is rather dull.  (TS)


Chicago 10
Directed by Brett Morgen
Featuring Hank Azaria (voice), Dylan Baker (voice), David Dillinger (archive footage), Abbie Hoffman (archive footage), Nick Nolte (voice), Jerry Rubin (archive footage), Mark Ruffalo (voice)

Chicago 10 is something really peculiar: an animated documentary.  Brett Morgan, who directed The Kid Stays in the Picture came up with an interesting idea: use archive footage when possible, then two different styles of animation when such footage is unavailable.  The effect works relatively well, and is reminiscent of some of the recent retroscoped films of Richard Linklater.  What it does is successfully recreate the chaos of 1968 and the farce of the trial that followed.  In the late fall of 1967, a group of left-wing activists decided to protest the Vietnam War by holding a “non-violent” direct action at the National Democratic convention.  Never has something gone so wrong and backfired so spectacularly.  (EL)


Directed by Cherie Nowlan
Starring Brenda Blethyn, Khan Chittenden, Emma Booth, Richard Wilson

Brenda Blethyn in a tour-de-force performance plays a middle-aged vaudevillian whose day and audience are both in decline.  Add to this her failed marriage, oily concubine, and her sons who are becoming more interested in girls than in mom.  A further complication is that one son, Mark, has a handicap.  Played to perfection by newcomer Richard Wilson, Mark steals every scene in which he appears.  Meanwhile, the other brother, Tim, makes his discovery of girls in the form of Jill who he meets while helping her and her friend move houses.  What follows is a touching and honest look at awkward teenage romance much to the disapproval of mom.  (TS)


Directed by Andrew Currie
Starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Billy Connolly, Dylan Baker, Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Czerny

Much fun is to be had watching Fido, perhaps the prettiest zombie movie ever made.  In this alternative reality, an alien virus of some kind has crashed into earth and reanimates the dead.  Our story picks up after the catastrophic Zombie Wars in which most of the world’s population was killed or, worse, has become the undead that walk the earth.  But a company named ZomCon offers a glimmer of hope: the zombie domestication collar.  This device actually tames the zombie by slaking his thirst for human flesh.  Still, danger is lurking and it might not be the dead behind it all.  (JH) 


The Good Life
Directed by Steve Berra
Starring Mark Webber, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Paxton, Harry Dean Stanton, Chris Klein, Patrick Fugit, Drea de Matteo, Bruce McGill, Donal Logue, Deborah Rush

Jason Prayer (Mark Webber) is a tabula rasa.  He has very little definition to his life.  Jason works two jobs, both of which have no future.  By day, he pumps gas as a full service station selling gas at self-serve prices.  By night, Jason helps out at a decaying movie theater run by the aged Gus (Harry Dean Stanton).  Gus has problems remembering things and can’t keep the theater open without Jason’s help.  And although Jason has worked in the theater (that shows old classic films) for years, he doesn’t appear to really care about the movies or even know that much about them.  Jason cares about people and keeps going because he imagines that they can’t live without him.  (JH)




Grace is Gone
Directed by James C. Strouse
Starring John Cusack, Alessandro Nicola, Shelan O’Keefe, Gracie Bdenarczyk

Grace is Gone is very, very good.  When you first see John Cusack playing Stanley Phillips, you don’t recognize him.  Seated on a couch at a support group for the spouses of those serving in the war in Iraq, Cusack as Stanley looks positively not Cusack.  In fact, he’s Stanley.  And Stanley is the only male at the support group.  He’s uncomfortable and you’re uncomfortable for him.  Stanley is married to Grace, who serves in Iraq.  Grace and Stanley have two daughters—one who’s 12 and another who’s eight.  He works at a big box warehouse named Home Store, and each morning rallies his co-workers as though a cheerleader.  But the cheer is all for show.  One morning, Stanley receives a knock at the door: Grace is gone.  How will he tell his daughters?  What will he tell them?  Get your hanky ready, as Grace is Gone takes us on an emotional journey.  Credit must be given to everyone involved, but Cusack’s performance might be his best ever, as he successfully abandons the Cusack walk and nervous talk.  And this is especially tricky because he is in almost every frame in the movie.  Instead of another hip wise-cracker, we get a measured man who must methodically deal with an impossible situation.  Grace is Gone might have serious break-out potential.  (JH)


Hear and Now
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky
Narrated by Irene Taylor Brodsky and featuring her parents Paul and Sally Taylor

“After surgery, who will they be?”,  filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky asks in her narration during the film Hear and Now.  She’s talking about her parents, Paul and Sally Taylor, both deaf their entire lives.  “Will they still be Deaf People, or Hearing People, or will they be something in between?”, she questions in the film.  “What if the implant doesn’t work? What if one of them can hear and the other can’t?”  The “implant” is the technological marvel that is the cochlear implant that could restore Irene’s parents the ability to hear.  Hear and Now is a documentary film by Irene Taylor Brodsky that chronicles her parents’ attempt to journey from the non-hearing world to the hearing one.  The film is an extremely personal one that carefully shares with us many tender moments. (JH)


Director Steve Buscemi
Starring Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller

This has been done before, most notably by the late Dutch director Theo Van Gogh.  Maybe because of this, Buscemi’s film feels stale, contrived, and becomes tiresome even though the performances are excellent.  Pierre Peters (Steve Buscemi) is having a bad day; there’s a huge political story brewing in Washington, but his editor has stranded him with Katja (Sienna Miller).  Katja is a popular television and movie actress, and Peters has been ordered to interview her.  At first, the beautiful movie star does not appear that she will make the interview, leaving Peters alone for almost an hour at a restaurant.  And when she arrives late, Peters, who is already annoyed, decides to vent his frustration out on her.  Journalists will identify immediately with Peters’ situation and find the initial exchange between the two entertaining.  (JH)


Directed by Crispin Hellion Glover
Starring Steven C. Stewart, Margit Carstensen, Carrie Szlasa, Lauren German, Bruce Glover

When a man with cerebral palsy falls for a visitor to an art gallery, a series of romantic and sexual encounters begins.  After one of our hero’s paramours rejects him, she is found murdered, and we’re off into a bizarre film noir with a true lady killer.  After Crispin’s 2005 Sundance debut with What is It?, a somewhat free-for-all surrealist tale, it was something of a surprise to find that It is Fine! has a linear narrative.  Yes, the imagery contained therein is guaranteed to shock and alienate the average audience.  Beneath the surface, lurks the ultimate empowerment movie for the ultimate movie underdog.  This is revenge of the nerds raised to the nth degree.  At times, the movie is patently ridiculous, contains laughable dialogue (except, you can’t laugh), too staged sets, and driving scenes with back projection that would have been dumped from Perry Mason episodes, but we are in the fantasy of a man for whom life has involved unimaginable suffering.  It would be easy to dismiss the film but for the wraparound that packs an emotional wallop hard to forget and justifies the excess that preceded it.  The screenplay was written by the film’s star, Steven C. Stewart, who was afflicted with cerebral palsy and ultimately succumbed to the disease before the completion of the film.  Crispin Glover is nowhere near entering the mainstream, but his grasp of cinematic narrative has born twisted fruit.  (TS)


Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Lee Boardman

When heroes are wrong, they pay a hefty price.  Witness the case of the seventh Earl of Longford, who got involved with a notorious child murderer, and campaigned for her release; something for which he has never been forgiven by the British public.  HBO and the BBC have made this television movie that traces the sorry events of a good but naïve man who causes personal disaster by doing what he thinks is the right thing.  The film starts on a radio talk show, where Frank Packenham (Jim Broadbent), the aforementioned Earl, is promoting a book he’s just written, and the callers begin to denounce him for his relationship with Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton), the abovementioned serial killer.  Great acting and an interesting film, to be sure.  (EL)


The Savages
Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Starring Philip Bosco, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Debra Monk

Dark comedy is a very tricky thing, especially if it isn’t executed as a live-action cartoon.  This is one of the funniest films about dying of old age that’s been made in years.  Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is living with his longtime girlfriend Doris in the famous Sun City retirement community, when an altercation with her caregiver leads to problems.  Thus, after years of estrangement, their father returns into the lives of his grown children Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Hilarity ensues.  No, seriously.  (EL)


Directed By Mitchell Lichtenstein
Starring Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Josh Pais, Hale Appleman, Lenny Von Dohlen

Certainly one of the most talked about films at Sundance, Teeth has quite a bite.  A cautionary tale of sorts that plays out as a vicious horror fable, the commercial potential of Teeth might be limited, given the need to show a significant amount of male genitalia on screen.  Okay, here’s the bottom line: not one, not two, but three severed penises are on display in this film.  It was more than enough to make me squirm in my seat, as just about nothing is left to the imagination.  Teeth is about the virtuous Dawn, an innocent high school girl who has taken a vow of chastity.  And she’s a spokeswoman for an abstinence organization of which the members make a purity promise and wear ruby colored rings to remind them to refrain from any kind of sex before marriage.  But when Dawn catches the eye of a handsome young man, Tobey (Hale Appleman), who is himself struggling with the concept of purity, she must decide how far to go.  And if she takes the plunge into womanhood, the man on the other end might be in for a big surprise.  This chick’s vagina is mutated and hungry.  (JH)


A Very British Gangster
Directed by Donal MacIntyre
Narrated by Donal MacIntyre, featuring Dominic “Lattlay Fottfoy” Noonan

Dom’s youngest, Bugsy, doesn’t want to be like his dad, because he tells us that his dad “did armed robberies and stuff.”  And he says in his own way that this kind of behavior leads to prison where they spit in your drink, or in your food, and then they mix it up.  You never know what you might be eating.  Innocent words from the child of a dangerous man—a very British gangster.  Stylish and scary, this high-gloss documentary screening at the Festival has great commercial appeal.  It’s like the British Sopranos, minus the suburban homespun spin.  A Very British Gangster follows Manchester crime boss Dominic Noonan—who later changed his name to Lattlay Fottfoy, an acronym for his family motto: “Look after those that look after you, fuck off those that fuck off you.”  Director Donal MacIntyre admits that he shot his film deliberately like a gangster movie.  And in addition to the complex and often beautiful camera work, Gangster has a kickin’ soundtrack with familiar tunes that have provided soundtrack for films like those by Tarantino.  The effect of this high-energy music and cinematography is to make this documentary more like a narrative feature film.  And MacIntyre organizes his footage and interviews in a way that feels like a gangster flick—giving us an intimate chapter in a gangster’s life.  (JH)


We Are the Strange
Directed by Michael Belmont


This  film is the ultimate revenge of YouTube.  Michael Belmont, using the pseudonym M dot Strange, made a feature film in his tiny apartment (no basement), and put bits and pieces on the site that, over the past few months has, for some reason that I cannot fathom, created a rather large following.  The film was recommended to me and I actually had to pay to get into the second screening at Sundance (there was no press screening).  If they gave out a booby prize at Sundance, this would definitely win, hands down.  We Are the Strange is indeed terrible.  Not bad, terrible.  (EL)

The editor or special guest writer for Entertainment Today.