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Penguin HighwayDirected by Hiroyasu Ishida

The precocious Aoyama keeps dozens of fastidiously maintained notebooks detailing everything from the weather to the geometry of breasts. Beyond his desk in the suburbs, Coke cans transubstantiate into penguins while a watery orb menaces the forest. These are the strange elements of Penguin Highway, the first feature film from Japanese anime house Studio Colorido and the only animated film screening in the Narrative Feature category at this year’s festival. A whimsical exploration of childhood curiosity, Penguin Highway follows its young protagonist as he attempts to decipher the mysteries that are unfolding in his sleepy town with the diligence of a proper scholar––no matter that among the arrows and diagrams of his notes is the phrase “Penguin Energy.” Everything seems to loop back to a beguiling dental hygienist (and her breasts, a trait on which the film fixates), and it is through this odd, sometimes uncomfortable, relationship that the peculiar heart of this film resides.

Directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, Penguin Highway is a slow burn. By the time we get to appreciate some of the more fantastic creations of the animation, it still feels overlong and a bit confused by its mixture of the weird and the real. Still, there’s wonder in the aesthetics: lantern reflections in a darkened lake, the way light filters across a bedspread, clouds rendered so lifelike that they look stolen from photographs. Backed by a gorgeous score, Aoyama’s quest for answers is only somewhat satisfied by the time the credits roll. And that is perfectly fine, Ishida seems to say; there is beauty in that which we will never fully understand. —Amy Guay

Screens Saturday, March 2 at 10:45 a.m. at The Miracle Theater.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le GuinDirected by Arwen Curry

“I am a very rare creature,” quips a young Ursula K. Le Guin in Arwen Curry’s enchanting documentary. As a pioneering feminist science fiction novelist at a time when white men overwhelmed the field, Le Guin was not unlike the mythical beasts that sprung forth from her own imagination and onto the pages of the classic A Wizard of Earthsea. By framing her life in the context of second-wave feminism, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin captures Le Guin’s legacy as a radical heroine. Though she passed away in January of 2018 at age 88, Le Guin is full of life in this film, guiding us with good humor through her prolific legacy. Shot against the wide expanse of an Oregon beach or within the snug walls of her Portland home, she seems adventurous yet approachable –– the perfect person to deliver that scathing indictment of the profit motive upon her acceptance of the most illustrious award of her career.

Le Guin is too unstuffy to properly convey her own significance without help, so we understand her influence primarily through reflections from members of her family and a handful of glittering admirers including Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. (“She is one of the finest explorers of questions,” declares novelist David Mitchell.) Worlds illuminates the power of one artist and her ability to dream manifold worlds into existence. “My job is not to arrive at a final answer and just deliver it,” Le Guin says. “I see my job as holding doors open, or opening windows. But who comes in and out, and what you see through the window…how do I know?” To have at our fingertips such eloquent candor: what a gift. —Amy Guay

Screens Friday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. at The Carnegie Institution for Science.

TransformistasDirected by Chad HahneA generation ago, the Cuban government considered homosexuality to be a nasty offshoot of capitalist excess. Gay men and women had to keep their identity a secret, and yet there was a small group of them who risked it all in order to express themselves. Transformistas is a documentary about this drag queen community, and how they evolved since the Castro regime.

Director Chad Hahne has impressive access to these performers, including heartfelt confessions and rehearsals for a big show. While some vignettes are admittedly compelling, this is a documentary that is in desperate need of a tighter narrative. There is an ambling quality as the film drifts from one queen to another, giving them unfocused time to reflect on their lives and their struggles. Shrewd editing could have made these stories cohere into an affecting portrait of marginalized people, but the film unfolds more like an oral history, instead of a film with a distinct purpose. Some sequences are powerful, like when a grieving mother talking about how her head transformista child leaves a hole in her heart. No matter how intense an individual moment can be, these stories do not have the context they badly require. This is enough material for a short-form documentary, but as feature, we are left with more questions than answers. —Alan Zilberman

Screens Wednesday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Human Rights Campaign.

CurtizDirected by Yvan Topolánszky

Michael Curtiz was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the golden age of Hollywood. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were some periods where Curtiz completed three films in one year. Still, he is best known for directing Casablanca, and the docudrama Curtiz is about that tumultuous period in his life. The behind the scenes story of Casablanca is already the stuff of legend: Curtiz was a terror on set, and Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman did not know the ending even as they were shooting. This film adds some additional detail, with a focus on how Curtiz (Ferenc Lengyel), who was Hungarian-American, dealt with the idea that his film should help the United States’ war effort. Directed by Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, the film a strange amalgamation. It looks like a Hollywood classic, with glossy black and white photography, plus the dialogue veers between English and Hungarian. The plot, with Curtiz playing a flawed person you eventually admire, is also meant to mirror the plot of Casablanca. It is an interesting premise, except Topolanszky squanders them with out-of-place, melodramatic flourishes and an attempt to shoehorn modern American politics. If you want your film to have modern resonance, it is a little too on the nose to include references to a wall and having characters say “make American great again.” This material is compelling enough on its own terms, so such strains for relevance are all the more frustrating. —Alan Zilberman

Screens Sunday, March 10 at 7:10 p.m. at the Carnegie Institute For Science. 

DakotaDirected by Roberto Carmona

For DCIFF audiences, the most interesting aspect of Dakota will be its sense of place. Set in the DMV, it showcases venues such as The Passenger and Jammin’ Java and features local theater actress Holly Twyford as the title character’s mom. Otherwise, you’ll tune out of this story about a young singer (Phoebe Ryan) whose life is purportedly all messed up because her boyfriend doesn’t like her best friend and she parties too hard the day before an audition to earn a scholarship to grad school. Its worst sin is director Roberto Carmona’s odd insistence on constantly whipping back-and-forth in time, often luxuriating in only one or two scenes before we jump back to two, three years ago or forward to the present and then back again. It makes it impossible to build any momentum; then again, when the majority of the plot is Dakota singing at clubs or in a studio in her baby-Britney voice (in the past, present, or who knows?), there’s really not much story to get going. A possible STD and pregnancy are complications, as are Dakota getting hit on by her boss and letting her dog ruin her mother’s new sofa. It’s as captivating as it sounds. —Tricia Olszewski

Screens Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Institute For Science.