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This year, the DC Independent Film Festival relocates to the City Museum of Washington, DC—but don’t take all those “DC”s too seriously. This isn’t primarily an event for local filmmakers, or even local audiences. As for “independent,” the word is no help at all, given that everyone from Harvey Weinstein to a 12-year-old with a digicam can claim to be an indie filmmaker. For those who aren’t presenting their work or participating in the seminars or film market, the fest remains as inscrutable as it was six years ago, when nearly everyone was bewildered by its original name, DCDance. (It was a play on “Sundance.”)
Still, there are worthy films in the selection, or at least among the 12 that the Washington City Paper’s critics were able to preview. One of them is actually a local venture: Crazy Like a Fox, a predictable but well-made tale of exurban Virginia that should see a D.C. opening soon. And there are some seemingly notable movies among those the writers couldn’t see, such as the closing-night attraction, Cuba Libre, which stars Harvey Keitel and a matched pair of European sex symbols, Gael García Bernal and Iben Hjejle.
The DCIFF trumpets Washington’s position as “the third largest production hub in the United States,” but most of that production work is for documentaries. So it’s fitting that our reviewers most strongly recommend two nonfiction features, Piece by Piece and Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea. But they also liked some things about Blackmail Boy, Domino One, and Hannah House, and they halfway enjoyed The Maiden of the Dojoji Temple, which is so not-D.C. it’s Japanese. As for how independent it is, we’ll leave that mystery for the ages—or at least next year. —Mark Jenkins
Screenings take place at the City Museum of Washington, DC, 801 K St. NW. Admission is $9. For more information, call (202) 537-9493 or visit www.dciff.org.
Alice’s Misadventures in Wonderland
Clearly, Robert Rugan loves the ’90s—and the ’00s, the ’80s, and a little bit of the ’70s, too. In his debut feature, the writer-director has not crafted an updated telling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as much as crammed an exhausting slew of pop-culture references into Carroll’s psychedelic outline. Alice (Maggie Henry) is a bored cubicle drone with an annoying boss. When a high-strung man in a white suit and a gas mask gives her a book that seems to contain the story of her life, and then runs off, she goes after him, ending up in an elevator that free-falls into a strange place so far underground her cell phone doesn’t work. As Alice tries to get out—or at least into the password-protected Garden, “the hottest spot in Wonderland”—she meets characters who parody Mulder and Scully, Robin Leach, Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade man-child, and Martha Stewart, who raps “I bake, I broil, I flow” in a video and, duh, ends up in jail. At least Rugan has more skill with a camera than with a keyboard: His Wonderland is slickly crazee, a Gothic landscape decorated with some surprising bursts of color. Even that painfully unfunny video, with its swirly That ’70s Show backgrounds, looks great. Sadly, visual flair isn’t enough to make Alice’s Misadventures in Wonderland watchable—and neither is the Katie Holmes– like Henry, who gamely plays the title role as a combination of confused and sarcastically irritated. For both Alice and the viewer, irritation soon wins out. —Tricia Olszewski
At 8:15 p.m. Friday, March 4.
Hannah House teaches us two things: (1) Ghost snakes were a big problem in 1904 Nebraska, and (2) silent movies sure are confusing. Or maybe it’s just this one. Luckily, the movie’s novelty—and brevity—overcomes its flaws: Shooting on digital video, directors Chad and Max Smith crafted their 78-minute based-on-a-true-story horror flick to look like a decayed pre-talkie. Hannah House is all stuttering images and burned frames as it tells the story of Anna (Summer Sawyer) and Jobe (Steve Millin), a young couple who move to a recently vacated farm. With Anna’s cousin Mary Jo (Cecilia Johnson) and her husband, Casper (Max Smith), living next door, they think the country will be a perfect place to raise their unborn child—but they don’t know about the nest of rattlers living beneath the floorboards or that maybe the previous owners didn’t exactly leave. The brothers Smith use dialogue cards for bare-bones plot setup and conversation—which leaves the film relying more on mood than any kind of real narrative. And despite the distraction of actors who look freshly plucked from a 21st-century suburb, Hannah House is pretty damn creepy, its flickering look lending itself to freaky shadows, barely-there ghosts, and split-second shots of bloodied heads. Sure, once the Smiths unleash the prosthetic vagina and the multiheaded skeleton, their movie officially becomes unintelligible. But unlike some recent horror flicks, at least this one has a good excuse. —TO
At 10:40 p.m. Friday, March 4.
Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
The DCIFF’s description of Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea makes the movie sound much more wild and crazy than it actually is. Yes, technically there are “bombing ranges, amputees, meth addicts, swinging seniors, naked Christians, [and] mooning Hungarians” in Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s directorial debut, but Plagues & Pleasures is basically your by-the-numbers doc about a truly depressing region in southeastern California. Not that that makes this Vernon, Florida–esque film any less enjoyable. A largely man-made lake that was formed in 1905 when irrigation canals from the Colorado River overflowed, the Salton Sea is 227 feet below sea level and saltier than the ocean. And, depending on which of the area’s largely elderly or low-income residents you ask, it’s either potentially “California’s version of the French Riviera” or “the greatest sewer the world has ever seen.” Many of the film’s 86 minutes are repetitive, mixing footage of the resort’s heyday in the ’60s with the wasteland it is now. Local freaks such as Hunky Daddy, the area’s unofficial, beer-swillin’, ass-flashin’ mayor, make for slightly more colorful interview subjects than the film’s many geriatric participants, but they all sound equally delusional when talking about what a great place it is to live. Enterprising ears may perk up at the mention of the Salton Sea’s ridiculous real-estate market, where lots go for as little as $3,500. But it’d be wise to heed the words of one of the few locals not looking through rose-colored glasses: With the current land prices, he says, “You can’t lose. Well, you can’t win, either.” —TO
At 4 p.m. Sunday, March 6.
There’s so much drama in Blackmail Boy that when a character says he got into a building by killing the doorman, for a second you’re unsure whether he’s joking. Co-written and co-directed by Thanasis Papathanasiou and Michalis Reppas, the 100-minute film is soap-operatically shameless, with enough back-stabbing and bed-hopping for a season’s worth of Desperate Housewives. After an opening-scene car accident leaves a family’s patriarch a vegetable, his wife, Magda (Nina Menti), starts taking care of his business, including trying to profit from a valuable plot of land that may be redeveloped by the government. The potential windfall puts her sexy son, Christos (Yannis Tsimitselis), her daughter, and the daughter’s husband at each other’s throats. Felicitously, Christos has also been at the crotch of a married development official, who naturally doesn’t want his wife to find out about the affair. But not everything here is Dynasty-ready: The characters live in nonfabulous houses, hold regular jobs, and are played by actors whose good, not great, looks are mostly hidden by workaday schlubbiness. The acting, too, is so natural that you’re happy to believe that, say, murder could very well be on any schoolteacher’s agenda. The tear running down the wheelchair-confined father’s cheek near the end of Blackmail Boy may be a bit much, but all you have to do is follow the rest of the family’s lead and ignore it. —TO
At 8:15 p.m. Sunday, March 6.
The Maiden of the Dojoji Temple
A visual treat for fans of the sumptuous side of traditional Japanese aesthetics, director and co-scripter Yukiko Takayama’s latest unfolds in Kabuki theaters, Buddhist temples, and dramatic natural settings. Haruka (Riho Makise), a Western-trained modern dancer, is obsessed with the suicide of her twin sister, Shiori, who was studying theater. Unable to concentrate on her dancing, Haruka decides to learn Kabuki from Tomitaro (Fukusuke Nakamura), a leading onnagata (male player of female roles) who also trained Shiori. As Haruka learns her role in Dojoji—which would never really be taught her, because women don’t perform Kabuki—she begins to merge with both Shiori and Kiyo-hime, the tragic character she’s to play. Haruka also falls in love with Tomitaro, just as she suspects Shiori did before her, but discovers that he feels passion only when in character. With its elegant costumes, striking locations, and skillful lighting, The Maiden of the Dojoji Temple is a handsome picture. But its somewhat overripe reflections on twinning, art vs. life, and the intermingling of love and death are nothing that art-film veterans haven’t already encountered in better films by Buñuel, Resnais, and Kieslowski. —Mark Jenkins
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 9.
“The phone rings. There’s been a murder. Same old story, nothing new,” an unshaven detective narrates in his best hard-boiled voice as Zen Noir opens. “But in some sad corner of your mind you still hope for something more, something real.” You said it, Mac. Granted, the scene is supposed to be a collection of stereotypes wrapped in a fedora-wearing, whiskey-drinking cliché, but that’s probably a more self-aware summary of Marc Rosenbush’s West-meets-East flick than the writer-director intended. Sure enough, when our unnamed hero hiding a troubled past (Duane Sharp) gets to investigatin’, he finds himself at a Buddhist temple, home to one stiff and three monks—none of whom is capable of answering any of the poor dope’s queries with anything but an infuriatingly evasive question of his own. “Where were you at the time of the murder?” he asks a goatee-sporting cenobite, who responds, “What exactly do you mean by time?” as he stares into space with the look of someone pondering the cosmos while on the can. It seems this head-scratching gumshoe doesn’t realize that his “left-brained crime-solving skills are useless in the intuitive, nonlinear world of Zen.” Good thing, then, that the Master (Shanghai Knights vet Kim Chan) is willing to share the secret of how death can be explained by oranges—and that sexy monkess Jane (Debra Miller) is even more willing to share the secret of her amazing rack. If only the rest of us were so lucky. —Matthew Borlik
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10.
Shot with overtwitchy handheld camera, the opening sequence of Robert Moreira’s near-farcical drama introduces pious Teodoro, his sexy second wife, Cláudia, and his rebellious teenage daughter, Soninha, as well as a group of close male family friends. A little too close, it turns out, given that both Cláudia (Leona Cavalli) and Soninha (Sílvia Lourenço) sleep with several of the guys, while Teodoro (Giulio Lopes) takes up with a proper churchgoing lady he’s auditioning as Wife No. 3. Teodoro is the kind of Christian who beats his daughter for starting to eat without saying grace, and this explosive São Paulo brood’s everyday hostility only accelerates dramatically after Júlio (Ismael de Araújo), Cláudia’s young lover, turns up dead. Soon, the family’s involvement in the violence outside their shabby little house comes to overwhelm them. In fact, the film ends with a series of bloody flashbacks, which are necessary to make clear who killed whom. Anyone who’s seen City of God knows that life in Brazil’s slums is a rough ride, but these characters’ utter lack of decency is deadening. Bad things happening to bad people is fodder for a Tarantino-style black comedy. Contra Todos, however, seems to take its miscreants seriously—or at least far more seriously than most viewers are likely to.—MJ
At 6 p.m. Friday, March 11.
Devils Are Dreaming
There’s a whole lot of self-satisfaction in writer-director Michael Sládek’s directorial debut. For one, Sládek’s multihyphen bio in the film’s press kit seems to have inspired the supposedly jaw-dropping range of Devils Are Dreaming’s central character, Joe (Stephen Donovan), a writer-director-actor-painter-musician-sculptor whose artistic pursuits draw the attention of comely stage actress Cessia (Jessma Evans). Devils also seems to argue that whereas experimental theater blows, experimental film fuckin’ rocks. Sládek’s story starts off showing Joe as a 30-year-old loser working in a terrible theater troupe, living with his parents, and basically annoying the shit out of everyone with his obstinate Napoleon Dynamite–ness. Then he wakes up in the middle of a rehearsal as Louis (John Gilbert), his troupe’s pretentious director. And once he gets used to that life, he returns to his own identity, only now he’s a famous porn director—and so on. Donovan makes Joe’s pre-life-hopping dorkiness palpable, but his girlish shrieking every time he becomes someone else gets old fast. With an irritating accordion score (eventually ditched, happily, for a punkier soundtrack) and plot holes that you could stick Sládek’s head through, Devils has more attitude than aptitude, and the identity switches are never explained. A desperate last-act speech by Joe about feeling worthless when you’re struggling to find your way in a world that others seem to have entered so easily does finally deliver the gut punch the film likely intended all along. But a few minutes of emotion aren’t worth an hour and a half of mess—which makes Devils’ final words a fitting review: “What. Ever.” —TO
At 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 11.
Watching naked Harvard students jog by as part of a Caligula-worthy ritual, Detroit native and undergrad Jason Young (Nick Garrison) comes to the inevitable conclusion: “Smart people are dumb.” And as Domino One unfolds, Young proves himself right: He’s a grant-winning chemistry whiz who pulls an expulsion-worthy 2.4 GPA and is less immune to temptation than he seems. Built around a mystery involving, among other things, a pink-tail-finned Dodge, Page 202 of an old book on shipmasters, an übersecret undergrad club, and the university’s seeming determination to colonize Cambridge one ugly building at a time, the film draws from an equally wide range of sources: noir, The X-Files, Tarantino, and, particularly in Garrison’s Ray Liotta–inflected voice-over, Scorsese. Director/editor Nick Louvel is confident and often creative, and his brisk exposition includes a great montage outlining the misadventures of a drug-dealing student. Sure, it doesn’t quite take a Harvard grad to guess the general direction of some plot elements—a mysterious woman named Dominique, played by Natalie Portman, and an equally mysterious pharmaceutical company called Iodom. But on the whole, Domino One does a fine job of being smart without getting too dumb in the process. —Joe Dempsey
At 10:45 p.m. Friday, March 11.
The news arrives quickly at the beginning of director Ken Hayashi’s barely feature-length road movie: Aspiring author and part-time gas-pump jockey Keita gets the word that he’s won a writing prize; finds out that his semi-girlfriend, Kiyomi, has taken up with a mutual friend; and learns that his high-school swim-club mascot is ill. This last bit of info inspires Keita and pal Tomo to rush to their semirural hometown, with the former recounting his drippy prize-winning fable—about a dragon named Apple—in animated installments as they travel. Along the way, they meet two fellow swim-team veterans, chubby Masura and lovely Aya, with whom Tomo falls suddenly in love. Earnest, energetic, and wildly sentimental, Apple Spirit may be an indie film, but it doesn’t contain a hint of independent thinking. Its celebration of youth, romance, and self-sacrifice (among dragons, at least) is entirely in the mainstream of Japan’s gushy pop fiction. —MJ
At noon Saturday, March 12.
Piece by Piece
Not everyone in Nic Hill’s San Francisco–graffiti doc likes his subject as much as he does: A small-business owner laments that it costs $1,500 to replace store windows when they’re treated like canvas, a bus passenger recalls getting an “I don’t give a fuck” after complaining that an artist’s pungent marker churned her stomach, and the powers that be even bump some graffiti up to a felony. Though the dissent enhances his film, Hill’s primary concern seems to be to celebrate as much as document. Not that that’s a problem: Piece by Piece puts standard documentary hallmarks—pans over photos and newspaper clippings, for instance, and the token academic talking head mixed in among interviews with artists—to compelling use, and through careful editing and multiple film stocks achieves a visual style appropriate to its subject. When introducing us to the artists, who liken graffiti to prayer and suffer incarceration and broken bones for their muse, Hill might seem a little worshipful. But some aspects of his film are more easily conveyed than others. When narrator Señor One asserts that the squiggly John Hancocks now playing at a bus stop near you are the essence of the art, if not its most appealing productions, the director’s images of colorful, sinewy wall-sized designs make it all too easy to understand his subject’s qualifier—that despite their importance, tags aren’t the medium’s most appealing creations. —JD
At 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12.
Crazy Like a Fox
Nat Banks isn’t exactly an uncultured suburbanite. But when the eighth-generation Virginia farmer and his family are swindled out of their historic home and land by a lawyer/real-estate-agent couple from D.C., the crazy old codger proves that he doesn’t need big-city amenities: He sets up camp in a cave by the creek. Maybe holing up in the back yard of your former Mount Pleasant group house after Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags buy the place from the landlord isn’t the most plausible idea, but in the wide-open splendor of the grand old South, it’s a tactic that works well—for both Banks (Roger Rees) and writer-director Richard Squires’ feel-good film. Sure, this tale of decent Southern folk holding out against evil carpetbaggers is schematic and hokey, but it gets the job done—especially in the hands of cinematographer Gary Grieg. After all those lush shots of rolling Virginia farmland and Banks’ beloved Goose Creek, it’s almost impossible not to feel a certain sense of satisfaction when the rural community comes together to oust the unwelcome developers. And Squires’ script does hold at least a few genuine surprises, such as when one of the defeated mutters, “It could have been so beautiful” while passing a development of nondescript town homes on the way back to Washington. That’s a moment as poignant as it is puzzling.—MB
At 5 p.m. Sunday, March 13. CP