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  • Film festival offers compelling variety

  • The Ashland Independent Film Festival runs Thursday through Monday with 91 documentary, feature and short films.
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  • The Ashland Independent Film Festival runs Thursday through Monday with 91 documentary, feature and short films.
    For a list of films and ticket availability, visit www.ashlandfilm.org. What follows are reviews of one feature film, two full-length documentaries and three short subjects. The films were selected at random.
    "Karaoke!" is a slight story about a young man whose cellphone keeps ringing, and he won't pick up, and he doesn't want to talk about it with his girlfriend. We're thinking another girl, right?
    Wrong. When she answers the phone one morning, matters come to a head, and it's time for him to face what he's been hiding from. It seems there should have been some foreshadowing. But this is one of those it-all-makes-sense-in-the-end kind of deals.
    Just when you thought you'd heard of every possible form of New Agey therapy, along comes "Palimpsest," a short film about a man who tunes homes. The client we're concerned with is a young woman who feels exhausted in the mornings.
    Armed with tuning forks of different frequencies, our detective pours over the place, especially the kitchen. The verdict? Let's avoid a spoiler by just saying it will require a purchase. Something is humming the wrong note, setting up a dissonance with some other entities. Strangely fascinating.
    In "The Other Side," a young Israeli boy faces the absurd circumstances of life near the West Bank wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians. Haunted by his brother's death and unable to fit in with his friends, he one day tosses a soccer ball over the wall, and it comes back.
    A game with an unseen playmate ensues. The boy asks his father about the other side. There didn't used to be a wall, is the answer. There were people there, old and young, happy and sad, families like us.
    The film brings a child's point of view to one of the world's most intractable problems. The boy has a dream that hints at a possibility for peace. But in the real world it's not so easy. Are such dreams a match for all that the wall signifies?
    "Aqui y Alla" ("Here and There") is the gentle story of the struggle of a man named Pedro to provide a better life for his family in Guerrero, Mexico, where he returns after years of working in the States. His wife still has conflicted feelings about his absence, and he barely knows his daughters.
    His dream is to start a band playing traditional Mexican music. Friends sign on and drop out. Pedro's wife, Teresa, has a difficult pregnancy. The couple wind up with no jobs and a new baby. Time passes. Little happens for Pedro. With little hope, should he go north again?
    "Aqui y Alla" traces the small details of daily life with the particularity of a good documentary: a makeshift bedroom, people at a dance, a Mexican classroom, an old lady's wishes for her funeral. Filmmaker Antonio Mendez Esparza's camera is deliberate almost to the point of lethargy in this tough-tender look at people living difficult lives.
    "The evil that men do lives after them," Mark Antony says in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." "The good is oft interred with their bones."
    Powerful men looking back on their lives typically contemplate such thoughts, often expressing a mix of satisfaction and regret. Even Richard Nixon expressed regrets.
    Not Dick Cheney. One of the main architects of two disastrous wars of choice that, like Topsy, just kept growing, not to mention his role in various scandals even now fading from the public consciousness, Cheney comes off as a man pleased with himself.
    "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my faults," he tells film director R.J. Cutler in the weirdly compelling "The World According to Dick Cheney."
    It's not as if Cutler is in Cheney's face. If anything he's easy on the man. He is less interested in the details of Cheney's career than in the man's character, almost as if he were doing a piece on, say, a leading citizen in some obscure place. Which, come to think of it, he is.
    The young Dick Cheney was an unlikely candidate to become one of the nation's most powerful men. He was kicked out of Yale twice and had a drinking problem that landed him in jail. It wasn't until he and wife Lynne moved to Washington that Cheney met the man who would change his world, Donald Rumsfeld.
    The latter mentored the former through the Nixon and Ford administrations and left Cheney with an appreciation of power and those who wield it. Taking his skills to the administration of George W. Bush, Cheney became in his words the most "consequential" vice president in the nation's history.
    Cutler counts among his sources both Cheney's allies and his critics. There's perhaps a note of dramatic inevitability in Cheney's fall from glory in the second Bush administration, when the president he served soured on him and began stripping his powers.
    If Shakespeare, who loved to write about the rise and fall of complex, powerful men, were writing the script, the final act would have deep speeches analyzing Cheney's character and his legacy. Don't look for that from Dick Cheney.
    If some are drawn to the corridors of power, others are drawn to the hardscrabble world of the powerless. Director Dawn Porter's "Gideon's Army" is an examination of the work and lives of three young public defenders in the American South.
    The film's title comes from the seminal 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case, which established the right of defendants in criminal cases to an attorney (Gideon couldn't afford one on charges of stealing a can of soda and $5).
    We have strong cultural notions about justice. It's blind, it usually prevails, etc. The reality is another matter. There are 12 million arrests in the nation each year. Most of those arrested are poor and will be represented by one of the nation's 15,000 public defenders. These people are typically young, often idealistic, always underpaid and nearly crushed by the workload.
    "I don't do anything else," says Travis, one of the public defenders.
    The system is designed to get guilty pleas, which it does 90something percent of the time.
    The three lawyers in this film represent hundreds of clients. Most are life's losers. Some come off as sympathetic. One faces 10 years of hard time for allegedly stealing $96. Another says if his public defender loses his case he'll kill her.
    "Some people are just bad people," says Brandy, one of the three lawyers.
    Porter's camera follows the action sans narration, in the minimalist style pioneered by legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, a former AIFF honoree.
    Justice often seems to come down to money. One accused man will go to a hard-time prison because his family cannot raise the $3,000 he needs for bail in order to enter a diversion program that would have allowed him to remain free.
    Porter gives the film a dramatic ending, following at some length the trial of a teen charged with armed robbery and looking at 10 years in prison with no parole. The case, like the film, is a roller coaster ride to an emotional climax. Then you realize it's just another day in the life of a public defender.
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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