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by Mark Jenkins,
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☆ indicates a film that's highly recommended; ★ indicates a film that's recommended to viewers particularly interested in the subject, genre, or region. Reviews are by Robin Diener, Patrick Foster, Michael Jeck, Mark Jenkins, Steve Kiviat, and Dave Nuttycombe. To reach the subsequent review pages, click page 2, or page 3. To reach the date-and-time list, click filmfest list.

AMERICANEAST Just as the mess in the Middle East is too large for simple solutions, the many characters and plot elements of American East are perhaps too much for one movie. And yet, by sprawling all over such issues as immigration, Islam, Israel, terrorism, tradition, family values, American values, the media, and the response to 9/11, American East neatly captures the current chaos. The main story concerns an Egyptian immigrant who runs a falafel joint in Los Angeles' Little Arabia but wants to open a "classy" restaurant modeled on "a place in Washington I like." His partner is "Sam the Jew" (the Lebanese Tony Shaloub), and the film takes place during a week of Code Red alerts. Just seeing the red alert title allows ambiguous closeups of boxes and faces to seem ominous — underscoring director Hesham Issawi's theme of unspecified discomfort. Nearly every possible side of every possible argument gets a fair — and well-written and performed — hearing, leading to an ending that is as hopeful as it is pessimistic. Which also seems right. (2007, 111 min) (Nuttycombe)

LA ANTENA This visually inventive Argentinian film is set in "The City Without a Voice," a conceit intended partially for satirical purposes, but mostly so director Esteban Sapir can delight in the conventions of silent black-and-white film. Much like Guy Maddin, Sapir approaches pre-talkie cinema with a mixture of awe and amusement. His montages, double exposures, and vignetting often look like the real thing, although his playful use of subtitles is more akin to Timur Bekmambetov's 2004 Night Watch than anything from the 1920s. The story is basically another movie guy's slap at television: Evil magnate Mr. TV uses the only person known to have a voice, a female singer, to narcotize his city-wide audience. But The Inventor, his daughter, and the singer's son (who also can talk) make their way to la antena — an abandoned broadcasting rig — in hopes of breaking the spell. The parable is uncompelling, and occasionally tasteless, but use of sound and vision is suitably mesmerizing. (2007, 98 min) (Jenkins)

BASIC SANITATION, THE MOVIE Rural Brazil is about as far from Hollywood glitz as one can find. But when the residents of a small village discover that there is no money in the government's budget to fix their town's rotting sewers, but that $10,000 is available to make a video, they connive to shoot a movie that will call attention to their plight — while using the money to make improvements on their own. Soon, the novice filmmakers find themselves talking product placement and arguing over character motivation. The team struggles to create 10 minutes of usable footage for their story of a "cesspool monster" stalking a beautiful woman. Director Jorge Furtado's wry comedy manages to both mock and celebrate such cliches as the "shaky-cam" monster POV shot. Though Hollywood cynically insists on impossible happy endings, Basic Sanitation's resolution, while not entirely believable, is perfectly satisfying. (2008, 112 min) (Nuttycombe)

BEYOND THE CALL Three foul-mouthed middle-American dudes — middle-aged or older — head to Afghanistan, Cambodia, the southern Philippines and other trouble spots in search of "high adventure." Are they crazy? Absolutely, but they're nutters with a cause: Everywhere they go, they bring food, medicine, and such sustainable technology as solar ovens. Adrian Belic's documentary is not a great piece of storytelling, and unravels abruptly in its final minutes. But Ed Artis, Jim Laws, and Walter Ratterman are fascinating guys doing essential work, on their own terms. They've privatized American benevolence, an especially worthy thing to do at a time when the American officialdom's foreign outreach has become so poisonous. (2006, 81 min) (Jenkins)

BLOOD BROTHERS Two preview DVDs for this film proved balky, so I couldn't follow this 1930s Chinese mobster tale to its conclusion. But the first half of Hong Kong director Alexi Tan's film begins a stylish, sweeping gangland epic with high production values, if no great surprises. Three buddies from a small town arrive in '30s Shanghai, where they find work with a ganglord, while one of them covets the boss's mistress, a sultry singer at the Gate of Paradise nightclub. At least in its first part, the movie bears a strong resemblance to Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad. However the story turns out, the film looks great. (2007, 95 min) (Jenkins)

THE BREAD WINNER In war-wrecked Kabul, 8-year-old Farouk is his family's only means of support. Dad was crippled in battle, so his oldest child sells calendars and newspapers on the street to earn money to buy food. This short will touch viewers who haven't been down these dusty streets before, but it doesn't add much to the many recent films about the travails of Afghan children. The film will be followed by a discussion with director Sonia Nassery Cole. (2007, 23 min) (Jenkins)

BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME This is another of the Makhmalbaf clan's riffs on unsupervised children and the difficulties of getting an education in Afghanistan. Hana Makhmalbaf's feature debut is not as striking as sister Samira's Blackboards or stepmother Marziyeh Meshkini's Stray Dogs, but it's worthy nonetheless. The title refers to the film's location, the inhabited caves of Bamyan, site of the massive Buddha sculptures that were dynamited by the Taliban. The story follows Baktay, who struggles to buy a notebook and then find her way to the correct tented classroom. (Neighbor Abbas attends a school, but that one's only for boys.) Along the way, Baktay tumbles into over-obvious allegory when she's detained by young boys playing Taliban, who insist that "girls don't go to school!" (2007, 81 min) (Jenkins)

CALLE SANTA FE Carmen Castillo's documentary takes its name from the street where Chilean leftist Miguel Enriquez was shot to death by police, barely a year after Salvador Allende's 9/11/73 overthrow by CIA-backed rightists. The director's viewpoint is not exactly neutral: She was Enriquez's companion, and lost their unborn child as a result of the attack. Returning to Chile after decades of exile, mostly in Paris, Castillo interviews her former comrades, families of the dead and "disappeared," and the now-grown children who were abandoned by their revolution-bound parents. The result is sweeping yet tightly focused: The film doesn't provide much historical context, or consider people outside the movement. Running nearly three hours, Calle Santa Fe is not designed for the casual viewer, but it includes much of interest, and moments that are deeply moving. (2007, 163 min) (Jenkins)

CHAOS As lustily villainous police officer Hateh (Khaled Saleh) browbeats demonstrators, and the Macho Pretty Boy, the Buttinsky Mom, and the Shyly Virginal, Lovesick Schoolteacher begin their own stories, all signs point to Lurid Melodrama. But then octogenarian director Youseff Chahine¹s storytelling skills take over, the stock characters start to show unexpected depths, and the seemingly cartoonish conniving turns into real pain amid an actually shocking crime and its impending coverup. The grand old genre of Egyptian cinema becomes the vehicle for a veiled polemic: Could crooked officialdom be violating Egypt? If the ending smacks of (admittedly satisfying) wish fulfillment, there¹s still a sting in the tail, epitomized by Saleh¹s tour de force performance, encompassing almost buffoonish roguery (he gulps Pepto-Bismol after a payoff-taking chowdown), hard-edged viciousness, and obsessive lost-soul pathos. (2007, 126 min) (Jeck)

THE CONTESTANT I know someone who won the grand prize on Wheel of Fortune, which included two cars. He had to sell one to pay the taxes on everything else. Still, he got off much easier than the protagonist of Rodrigo Cortes' The Contestant. Here, an economics professor wins millions in a TV game show and soon discovers "it's not easy to be a millionaire" as the unforeseen costs and taxes of living large pile up. But this stylized, impressionistic, fast-paced comedy is as much a critique of economic theory as materialism. "Politicians and economists make the world irrational," says one character, who goes on to present a much clearer explanation of the banking system than I ever got in school. (2007, 88 min) (Nuttycombe)

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN Three families are linked by two senseless killings in Head-On director Fatih Akin's latest consideration of the complexities of being German in Turkey and Turkish in Germany. The structure is the now-familiar web-of-fate employed by such multi-strand films as Babel. In the first chapter, an old Turkish man in Bremen makes a deal with a middle-aged Turkish hooker that ends yo the letter's death. In the second, a female political activist flees from Istanbul to Germany and falls in love with a German woman, who follows her home after she's deported. Finally, the old man's son, a college professor who's recently abandoned Hamburg for Istanbul, meets the German woman's mother (Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla), who's traveled to Turkey in an attempt to understand her daughter's death. Although inevitably a little wcglib, the film is confident, evocative, and astutely constructed. (2007, 116 min) (Jenkins)

EGG The title of Semih Kaplanoglu's wispy drama refers to one of the simple pleasures of country life: a fresh egg for breakfast, collected from your backyard chicken. Living in Istanbul, where he runs a small bookstore and writes little-read poetry, Yusuf has forgotten such things. So when he's summoned to his hometown for his mother's funeral, he intends to head back to the big city as quickly as possible. Somehow, however, Yusuf lingers, spending time with his pretty cousin, who had been caring for mom, and contemplating the bloody religious sacrifice his mother had requested. A tale of delayed-reaction acceptance, Egg is a modest film, but a quietly moving one. (2007, 98 min) (Jenkins)

FADOS The latest in Carlos Saura's series of world-music studies (following Tango and Flamenco) can be seen a couple of different ways. On one level, it's a graceful, heartfelt homage to a centuries-old Portuguese art form. A succession of talented musicians play mournful, moving songs accompanied by historical footage and elegant dancers. From the perspective of American indie rockers (and their heirs, the Pitchfork generation) who'll check out the film for its world-music and the participation of heavyweights like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, it's a bunch of depressed looking people singing slow sad Portuguese songs with their eyes closed, while dancers leap around a cheesy soundstage. A series of kinda-boring world-music videos, in other words. Which means if it ain't too great, it's gotta be amazing. (2007, 92 min) (Foster)

THE FALL This visual stunner from Tarsem (The Cell) Singh plays like a children's movie, but its violence, narcotic themes, and a bleak denouement indicate it's meant for some sort of adult. Think The Princess Bride or Time Bandits, but with a darker outlook and a significantly less humorous spin. In an L.A. hospital during the silent-film era, a stuntman who was crippled on the job spins a tale to amuse a young immigrant girl who broke her arm while picking oranges. (American dreams, you see, are built on unseen victims.) The inner story's elaborate plot involves an ex-slave, a heroic bandit, Indians (both types), and Charles Darwin, and all the characters are — in the manner of the Wizard of Oz — based on people glimpsed around the hospital. Filmed in 23 countries, including such exotic climes as India, China, Egypt, and Cambodia, The Fall shows a wonderful world. Yet the dazzling scenery just sets off a dingy, despairing fable. (2006, 118 min) (Jenkins)

FIESTAPATRIA A remote house in the countryside may not be the ideal place to bring together two families whose members have many potential disagreements — especially in Chile, where the wounds of the '70s and '80s eras are still raw. At first, it seems that Maracena and Alvaro's engagement party will only yield the usual family arguments: Macarena doesn't like her older half-sister, and comes to be altogether too fond of Alvaro's handsome cousin. But soon the political upstages the personal, as ex-military men debate former revolutionaries, and the North American in-law has to defend her "fascist" homeland from right-wing Chileans. Politics aside, however, Luis R. Vera's film is all too familiar. Even viewers who don't know Allende from Pinochet will have heard most of this bickering before. (2007, 102 min) (Jenkins)

THE GIRL BY THE LAKE A murder does occur in this Italian movie, and a small-town mystery ensues. A teasing introduction aside, however, director Andrea Molaioli isn't very interested in the usual thriller elements. The victim, Anna, may have wanted to die, and everyone — well, nearly everyone — questioned by big-city detective Giovanni is more innocent than first seems likely. Giovanni does crack the case, but he's just as concerned with life at home: His wife has Alzheimer's, and the cop can't bring himself to tell their teenage daughter that mom will never return from the nursing home. Full of medical details — Anna used to babysit an autistic kid, and Giovanni has "atypical dermatitis" — the film emphasizes the everyday aspects of life in a picturesque mountain town. Ultimately, however, that homespun quality clashes with the plot, which may not be as lurid as that of many mysteries, but is just as contrived. (2007, 95 min) (Jenkins)

HEAVY METAL IN BAGHDAD This well-traveled (and -regarded) doc from Vice magazine (with some production involvement from Spike Jonze) follows Acrassicauda, purportedly Iraq's only metal band, from its origins under the Hussein regime to its escape to Syria three years later. Though the band is hardly a household name — six gigs during the period covered in the film) — its dedication to its art under obviously trying circumstances is the main message of this bumpy, lo-tech study. Given the gravity of the situation around them, the gonzo-isms of filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti can get a bit irritating, but the duo wisely keep the camera focused on the travails of these earnest headbangers most of the time, producing a strong work that will hopefully find an audience among American youth who think they've got it tough. (2007, 92 min) (Foster)