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Short reviews of films showing at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, which runs March 7-10.

Hard Shoulder

If the painful, shamelessly drawn out Saw franchise wasn’t enough of an indication that the “torture porn” subgenre has overstayed its welcome, Nicholas David Lean’s Hard Shoulder should serve nicely as a stark reminder. Like a hackneyed Devil’s Rejects knockoff, the film follows a family of four as they embark on a weekend trip as a last-ditch effort for patriarch Carl to make amends with his wife and kids. Things don’t exactly go as planned: They’re run off the road by a family of violent carnies, who kidnap and torture the family in an abandoned diner.

The only way to make a terse and violent thriller of this nature work is to craft characters worth caring about and rooting for, but Lean doesn’t do that. Most of the film lingers on Carl and his wife’s fraying relationship, but never illuminates the reasons behind their cold divide. Viewers won’t feel much for these characters, left, as they are, so unexplored. Finally, after watching Carl’s family suffer through physical and emotional torture (while we suffer through terrible acting and a half-baked script), the film taps out with a twist ending that would even make M. Night Shyamalan cry foul. (Matt Cohen)

The film shows at 9:30 p.m. tonight at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $12.

Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light is a meandering and slow-moving documentary about the construction of an ornate glass window in Washington National Cathedral. Director Peter Swanson introduces Rowan LeCompte, an American artist who specializes in stained glass, as well as Dieter Goldkuhle, a German craftsman who sculpts the glass and puts it into shape. In between languid shots of National Cathedral, Swanson films his subjects with careful attention. But his affection for Lecompte gets him in trouble: In curiously long takes, the frail octogenarian rambles past the point of interest and drifts into Grandpa Simpson territory. A shrewder director would have left more on the cutting-room floor.

Goldkuhle fares better since he’s younger than Lecompte, but the interviews are still far less interesting than the work itself. Let There Be Light is fascinating when Swanson simply portrays artists and glass workers doing what they do best (though the jazz soundtrack accompanying a scene with German glass blowers was a dubious choice). Eventually, Swanson stumbles upon a surprise ending, just not the one he wants, leaving Let There Be Light with a dissatisfying, regrettable conclusion. (Alan Zilberman)

The film shows at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the National Cathedral’s Perry Auditorium, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues NW. $22.

Oros (The Coin Bearer)

Gambling is illegal in the Philippines—-unless it happens at a wake. The idea is that gambling could help grieving families raise money to cover funeral costs. But the law has created a bizarre situation in which petty criminals create false wakes to facilitate illegal gambling (the bodies are real, but anonymous). This is world depicted in Oros, a drama directed by Paul Sta. Ana.

Ana follows two brothers as they set up gambling operations in their impoverished hometowns. The older brother, Makoy, sees himself as an important member of the community—-he’s providing a service that’s in high demand—-whereas his brother Amet is wary of the whole business. Ana follows the brothers as they wheel and deal in one impoverished setting after another. His naturalistic approach is intriguing at first, but as it becomes clear that he’s skimped on plot, Oros begins to drag. This material deserves a better treatment. Instead of caring about what happens to Makoy, I found myself wondering why he bothers with such an elaborate ruse when bribing the cops may be far more efficient. (AZ)

The film shows at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $12.

Camera Shy

Camera Shy is a dark comedy that’s about as high-concept as Groundhog Day or The Truman Show. It centers on Larry (Nicolas Wright), a corrupt city councilman. After announcing the construction of a casino and having sex with his assistant/mistress, Larry notices that a cameraman is filming him. In other words, director Mark Sawers breaks the fourth wall: we’re the camera, and Larry is the only one who can see us watching him. Whenever the shot cuts from Larry’s front to his back, he sees the camera man teleport from place to place. It’s a heady experiment, and Sawers stays true to his premise while milking it for physical comedy. Terrible things start to happen after Larry goes bonkers: His wife leaves him and the casino project falls apart. There’s even a body count.

A convincing everyman, Wright manages to ground the film’s macabre concept. By the time Larry suspects he’s in a movie and looks to a screenwriter for help, Camera Shy veers into a strangely compelling commentary on our collective narcissism. We’re all stars of our own life story, and Sawersmakes that notion uncomfortably literal. (AZ)

The film shows at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $12.


A gorgeous, polished woman tells some schlub with ridiculous, greasy hair, “I have been thinking about you for an eternity.” Only in the movies! Or at least only in Normal, writer-director Nicholas P. Richards’ 76-minute debut that starts off intriguing and then goes on tangents that make it feel about four hours long. The sci-fi-leaning story involves a loser (Geno Rathbone) who lends his car to a neighborhood gangster and then has to pay some other thugs $3,000 to get it back. So first he agrees to work as a gorilla mascot for a car dealership. Then he takes a suspiciously well-paying job delivering a mystery package to a field in Normal, Ill. (compelling), which is where things get trippy (directionless). A dead-father backstory and the aforementioned, unrealistic soul-mate business are unsuccessful in their apparent intention of lending the film deeper meaning, when it probably would have been more entertaining had Richards stuck to the ape suit angle all along. (Tricia Olszewski)

The film shows at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $12.