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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.

THE HOME SONG STORIES Mom's out of control, but then you can hardly blame her. Once a glamorous nightclub singer in Hong Kong, she's now a housewife in Melbourne, living with her two children and her disapproving mother-in-law while her husband's at sea with the Australian Navy. The younger of the two kids, called Tom in the film, grew up to be writer-director Tony Ayres, who treats his memories of mom with tenderness, but also with clarity. Hard-drinking and inclined to flit from "uncle" to "uncle," Rose (Joan Chen) gives only occasional thought to establishing a stable home for Tom and his teenage sister. With "Uncle Bill" aboard ship, Rose hooks up with a younger Chinese man, Joe, who's handsome but has two significant drawbacks: He's illegal, and an inveterate gambler. The basic shape of Ayres's cinematic memoir is entirely familiar, but there are enough specific details to keep things interesting. (2007, 103 min) (Jenkins)

I JUST DIDN'T DO IT A decade after the gently subversive Shall We Dance? encouraged the Japanese salaryman to follow his mild-mannered dreams, director Masayuki Suo returns with a more controversial tale. Crammed into a rush-hour train on his way to a job interview, flustered 26-year-old Kaneko is accused of groping by a 15-year-old schoolgirl. He's innocent, Kaneko insists, and a witness agrees. But Kaneko faces a prosecutory system that boasts a 99.9 percent conviction rate, and considers not-guilty pleas a form of insubordination. Unlike exposés of injustice in other parts of the world, this movie is neither fiery nor encouraging. Playing Kaneko's lawyer, Shall We Dance? star Koji Yakusho delivers low-key lectures on the failings of Japanese law, never raising his voice — or the viewer's hopes. The lack of courtroom drama limits the methodical film's appeal, but students of Japanese society should be fascinated. (2007, 143 min) (Jenkins)

IN THE NAME OF GOD This stilted, didactic melodrama equates Muslim fanaticism with the U.S. war on terror, an equivalence that may be too much even for Americans ashamed of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The story follows two musical brothers from Lahore, Sarmad and Mansoor, and their Westernized cousin, Mary, who was raised in Britain. While Sarmad becomes a fundamentalist and withdraws from performing, Mansoor heads to music school in Chicago, where he falls for an American woman. Mary's father learns that his daughter plans to wed a blond Briton, so he takes her to a remote area of Pakistan and forces her to marry Sarmad. Then 9/11 occurs, and Mansoor is arrested and tortured by thuggish American cops, while Sarmad is forced into combat in Afghanistan. Ultimately, moderate Islam prevails, although it's worth noting that only Sarmad gets to return to something resembling his previous life. Director Shoaib Mansoor's film was a hit in Pakistan, but for American viewers it's a curio of mostly sociological interest. (2007, 126 min) (Jenkins)

JAZZ IN THE DIAMOND DISTRICT It's always fun to see your own town in the movies. The Washington area, however, is most often portrayed with a few stock shots of the monuments, and any other geography is almost always wrong. So it's great to see actual D.C. neighborhoods in director Lindsey Christian's tale of two sisters chasing artistic dreams. Christian puts alma mater Duke Ellington School of the Arts to good and frequent use, Ben's Chili Bowl opened up its kitchen and allowed filmmakers behind the counter for several scenes, and a go-go band talks of "getting a spot in Hyattsville." But while the backstage drama with the bandmembers play convincingly, this tale of music biz heartbreak has been told many times before — though not often as beautifully photographed. (2007, 79 min) (Nuttycombe)


THE JOURNEY: THE GREEK AMERICAN DREAM This TV-style documentary covers a century of Greek immigration, telling a story that won't surprise viewers familiar with the histories of any 19th-century migrants to the U.S. Rejected by mainstream society, the Greeks take lousy jobs and retain their language, but gradually assimilate, both culturally and economically. Director Maria Iliou capably but unimaginatively cuts between archival photos and footage and recent talking-head interviews, mostly with academics. The last section is the liveliest, with a consideration of Elia Kazan's career and comments from two locals, former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes and crime novelist George Pelecanos. (2007, 87 min) (Jenkins)

KATYN Polish legend Andrzej Wajda's recreation of the notorious 1940 Katyn massacres — in which Stalin's minions matter-of-factly murdered over 20,000 Poles one-by-one in assembly line fashion, then, with Allied compliance, blamed it on the Nazis — is a memorial that's personal as well as national: The director's officer father was one of the victims. Just the coupling of Wajda and Katyn should be enough for aficionados; if the casual viewer may at first be wishing for footnotes, careful attention and the 83-year-old Wajda's still-youthful filmmaking ultimately make for a gripping experience, as the action moves from mass scenes in the camps to bewildered loved ones desperately waiting for news. The effect seems slightly muted next to Wajda's war classics of the '50s and his '70s ripped-from-the-headlines Solidarity works — as well as his French Revolutionary Danton — but the master saves a shocking sucker punch for the powerful concluding sequence. (2007, 121 min) (Jeck)

KING OF PING PONG A dour family dramedy from the frozen North, this film is named for Rille, a pudgy adolescent who takes a lordly view of his vassals in the ping pong room at the local rec center. Rille and his younger brother Erik, who's very different from his sibling, live with their mother. Their U.S.A.-hating father, a daredevil and a drunk, is often away, but he returns to make everything worse during the boy's iced-over spring break. Beset by bullies, confused by dad's lies, angry that Mom's got a boyfriend, and shocked by a family revelation, Rille loses what little self-control he had. His breakdown seems to promise tragedy, but instead Jens Jonsson tidies everything for a resolution that's something of a relief, if not altogether convincing. (2007, 120 min) (Jenkins)

LATE BLOOMERS I wonder if Die Herbstzeitlosen, the original Swiss title, offers the same delightful double-entendre as the English. (Online translators were no help.) Because, in fact, the story concerns both dreams delayed and undies. A small-town widow copes with the death of her husband by rekindling her passion for sewing — and turning his staid shop into a fancy lingerie store. Of course, most of the conservative townsfolk are scandalized. The widow's son, the vicar, advises that it's "never too late to turn back." But it's a foregone conclusion that this tiny and charming rebellion will succeed. For one, Switzerland is too beautiful for anyone to be unhappy there, right? As the elderly shenanigans unfolded, my wife observed, "This is sooo much better than Steel Magnolias." (DN)

LOST MOON Set in '50s Bombay, this is a backstage musical as melodramatic as the Bollywood movies its principal characters make. A fine dancer who soon proves herself as an actress, teenage Nikhat prospers under the protection of a producer and star whose interests in her are not altogether pure. Then she falls for Zafar, a serious author who will soon become a screenwriter and director. Their relationship never quite works — until, that is, Zafar and Nikhat reunite to fictionalize their failed love into a romantic musical. Director Sudhir Mishra uses modern techniques to evoke Bollywood's classic era, with handheld camera and bright hues contrasting the more formal, black-and-white style of the films-within-the-film. Bollywood buffs should be amused by the frank talk and scrappy antics of the people behind those decorous old films: One musical number begins as Nikhat and Zafar hurl stones at the house of a producer who "auditioned" Nikhat on his casting couch. (2007, 125 min) (Jenkins)

MADE IN JAMAICA French director Jerome Laperrousaz's documentary uses performance and interview footage of streetwise dancehall and older reggae stars to reveal 21st century Jamaica, a poor country (albeit with nice beaches) beset by violence, high rates of unwed-teen pregnancy, and aftereffects of colonial rule. The film shows the vitality of Jamaican music, and how its lyrics — from bad-boy posturing to romance, lewdness, and rebelliousness — fit in. One sequence quickly cuts from well-known dancer Bogle exuberantly moving onstage with flamboyant dancehall rapper Elephant Man, news footage about Bogle's murder later that night (for allegedly mocking other performers), gruff-voiced dancehaller Bounty Killer chanting "everybody sing 'die by guns'," and a grief-stricken woman at Bogle's funeral procession as soulful crooner Gregory Isaacs sings mournfully. The director deliberately doesn't include the views of Jamaican politicians, academics, or even the nation's always-busy record producers. Instead, he uses performances and interviews with old hands like Bunny Wailer and Toots Hibbert, and newer bloods Vybz Kartel, Tanya Stephens, and Lady Saw. Through rhythm and gab they cover economic woes, the legacy of Bob Marley, individual and governmental responsibility for crime, independent women, Rastafarianism, and other aspects of life in country described by Gregory Isaacs as one where "Saturday's a carnival, Sunday's a funeral." (2006, 120 min) (Kiviat)

MADRIGAL The kind of pretentious art film that's too mannered even for fans of such stuff, director Fernando (Havana Suite) is flashy, erotic, and very silly. Dedicated to French surrealist filmmaker Rene Clair, Perez's parable is set in a sexed-up Cuba where everyone is an artist or dreamer. Fledgling stage actor Javier is encouraged by his lover, Eva, to pursue pudgy Lusita, because she inherited a large apartment. Lusita wants a harp, not to play, but just because she's seen one in her dreams. Javier and Lusita fall in love, but that goes wrong, and suddenly we're in a future imagined by a short story Javier wrote: Swirling with hormonal vapor, Havana has become part of "an empire of Eros." People copulate in the street, and the horny vibe has become so oppressive that some malcontents plot their escape. You can't blame them. (2007, 112 min) (Jenkins)

THE MATADOR No metaphorical title here: Stephen Higgins and Nina Golden Seavey's documentary follows several years in the career of Spain's David Fandila, who finally achieves his goal of 100 bullfights in a single year. (He's only the 13th to do so.) The film doesn't ignore the growing opposition to bull fighting, yet declines to take sides. For every protester, there's a defender. Fandila calls his trade "a beautiful savagery," which won't convince those viewers (including me) who consider bull fighting an ugly relic that's not remotely poetic. While the movie could be gorier, it does have several scenes of bulls being stabbed and killed. (2008, 75 min) (Jenkins)

MON COLONEL Comparisons are inevitable between Laurent Herbiet's directing debut and Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, since both deal with the problem of torture during the Algerian war for independence. Mon Colonel comes out a disappointing second. Scripted but not directed by producer Costa (Z, The Confession) Gavras, Colonel moves between a color-shot present-day investigation of the murder of an admitted and unrepentant torturer (Olivier Gourmet), and the b&w dramatization of a callow lieutenant's (Robinson Stevenin) diary account of his own slow and steady slide in to co-option and legal justification. Gourmet's one-note bulldozer pales next to the icy logic of Jean Martin's para leader in Battle, while the intense Stevenin finally seems almost a stereotype of the weak-willed intellectual patsy. Parallels to the present are obvious and timely, and some scenes are quite effective. But when the real highlights are the subtleties of Cecile de France in the potentially nothing role of the present day Army liaison and the late-arriving cameo of Charles (Shoot the Piano Player) Aznavour, Colonel's also-ran status is evident. (2007, 111 min) (Jeck)

MONGOL A prolific rapist as well as an enthusiastic killer, Genghis Khan inseminated so many women that today 16 million men carry his Y chromosome. Thus it seems a little odd that Russian director Sergei (The Prisoner of the Mountains) Bodrov has made a biopic about Khan's early years that emphasizes the conqueror's rapport with his strong-willed wife. This somewhat modern yet mostly old-fashioned battle epic has lots of horseback action, but humanizes Genghis by showing his early defeats. (He even spends some time in a cage.) Also adding to the character's appeal is the casting of Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, playing another in a line of taciturn, soulful killers. Speaking phonetic Mongolian, Asano makes an engaging hero, if not a historically convincing Khan. This Kazakh-German-Russian-Mongolian co-production was nominated for the 2007 foreign-film Oscar. (2007, 126 min) (Jenkins)

THE NIGHT JAMES BROWN SAVED BOSTON: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT An engrossing study of Brown's landmark April 5, 1968 concert at Boston Garden, David Leaf's documentary works as entertainment and history lesson, despite being a bit stingy with musical clips from the electrifying show. A host of commentators — from Al Sharpton and Cornell West to former mayor Kevin White — add context on the concert (and its hastily arranged live television simulcast) that fell on the night after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. The sheer magnetism of Soul Brother #1 kept the city — which one observer remembers as "a powder keg ready to explode" — calm while scores of others burned. The watershed concert led to an expanded social and political role for Brown. If Leaf's summary of those later events makes for a murky conclusion, it doesn't really affect this sharp study of one of America's more amazing collisions of music and history. (2008, 75 min) (Foster)

OH-OKU: THE WOMEN OF THE INNER PALACE Set mostly in the lush confines of Edo Castle, director Toru Hayashi's historical drama contrasts its elegantly art-directed view of aristocratic Japanese life with a few scenes of shocking brutality. It's 1713, and Japan has entered a dangerous phase: The shogun is dead, leaving a successor who's only 5 years old. Courtiers abhor a power vacuum, and thus many conspiracies are afoot. The central plot involves Ejima (Yukie Nakama), an upright, virginal retainer. In order to destroy Ejima's mistress, her enemies enlist that most disreputable of characters — a Kabuki actor — to be "an assassin of virtue." But if Shingaro can be paid to attempt to seduce Ejima, he's not capable of betraying her entirely. A bit too pretty to rival the great '50s accounts of samurai-era corruption, Oh-Oku is nonetheless beautifully staged, gracefully performed, and appropriately cynical. (2006, 126 min) (Jenkins)

ONE HUNDRED NAILS After the spectacular Singing Behind the Screen, director Ermanno Olmi retreats to the Italian countryside for the film he has said will be his last. A bearded University of Bologna professor makes a spectacular statement against academic knowledge, and then flees into the real world. He takes up residence in the remains of an old house on the Po River, where the rustic, warm-hearted locals call him "Jesus Christ." The prof can't turn water into wine, but he does know all the best Gospel parables, and he can summon the needed money -- from his credit card -- when his new friends are fined for living illegally on public land. One of the more self-conscious of Italian cinema's many hymns to the simple life, Olmi's film moves from Karl Jasper's rationalism to a mystical coda. That's a transition that's hard to follow, at least for those who aren't already inclined toward mysticism, but the filmmaking works even if the moral doesn't. (2007, 93 min) (Jenkins)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR: BOB DYLAN LIVE AT THE NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL 1963-65 Of interest to completists, obsessives, and fans who aren't already Dylan-ed out by the Bob-tide that has crested in the past few years, Murray Lerner's film gathers odds and sods from a trio of seminal folk fests. In stark black-and-white, Zimmy walks the folk movement up the mount to its zenith ("Blowin' in the Wind" with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and the Freedom Singers in '63), then drives a stake through its heart (a wicked electric "Maggie's Farm" in '65). In between, Joan looks gorgeous, Seeger gets increasingly disgusted and Bobby does an indelible version of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." And as any Dylan-ite worth his basement tapes already knows, the audio here is the sharpest of any of the Newport footage. (Foster)

PALOMA DELIGHT Named for a fancy dessert, this Algerian romp has a bittersweet tinge. It's the tale of Aldjeria, a "fixer" who provides many services, most of them illegal: She and her bevy of young women cater to garden-variety desires, but also break up marriages and shut down cafes, if so required. It's to further a divorce that Aldjeria recruits a pretty waitress and remakes her as a heartbreaking belly dancer, Paloma. Aldjeria thinks she's on the verge of going legit, reopening a now-abandoned spa she enjoyed many years ago, and Paloma is the key to her success. But the viewer knows that didn't quite happen: The film opens with Aldjeria's release from prison. Nadir Mokneche's film relies heavily on the force-of-nature personality of its star, Biyouna, but also offers an earthy portrait of modern-day Algiers. (2007, 134 min) (Jenkins)

PLOY With such films as Last Life in the Universe, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has come to specialize in a sort of dreamy gangster movie. His latest doesn't exactly meet that description, but it does include one thuggish character and a deliriously sleepy ambiance. Jet-lagged and short-fused, a U.S.-based Thai couple arrives in Bangkok after a 20-hour flight. They check into a luxury hotel decorated in pastel, early-morning colors. While Dang tries to sleep, Wit heads to the bar, where he meets Ploy, a teenage girl with a long wait for her mother. Wit invites Ploy to sleep on the sofa in the couple's suite, a kindness that activates his wife's jealousy. Meanwhile, a hotel maid and bartender make love in a vacant room. Eventually, Dang leaves the hotel — and really gets into trouble. How much of this is fever dream and how much reality hardly matters. Coolly seductive, the film is a masterly evocation of drowsiness, alienation, and jet-age placelessness. (2007, 100 min) (Jenkins)